“ENJOY the play – it’s pretty long.” With these words, the Devil (charmingly played by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) ends his prologue and opens the action on Women, Beware the Devil, a new play by Lulu Raczka at the Almeida Theatre.
Directed by Rupert Goold, this sumptuous and extravagant production fills its two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime with a potent combination of black comedy, true horror, mystical threats, and realistic violence. Described by its cast in promotional content as a ‘modern take on a Jacobean tragedy’, the play combines elements of early revenge dramas like Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus with contemporary twists of language and humour, whilst also making the most of its budget with practically scene-to-scene costume changes for its aristocratic characters and a set which functions as a dizzy optical illusion.
Alison Oliver and Leo Bill. Photo: Marc Brenner
Alison Oliver, casting off the trappings of her quiet debut in the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, brings an animalistic energy to Agnes, a witch-turned-maid (and, eventually, turned Lady of the house). Agnes, whose mother was a witch, has spent her life attempting to be good, rejecting and suppressing her true nature in order to be welcomed by God at heaven’s gates.
Working as a farm girl on the large estate belonging to Lady Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard) and her brother, she enters in rags, brought to the house for what initially appears to be a witch trial at the hands of Lady Elizabeth. It’s the 1640s and the Civil War is on the horizon: Puritanism is shedding fear and discontent amongst the people, and rumours of witches are the easiest way to explain the undercurrent of death, disease, and existential dread which permeates Britain.
Alison Oliver and Lydia Leonard. Photo: Marc Brenner
Agnes is only the latest scapegoat – and in her untapped power, Lady Elizabeth sees the potential to bring her home back to its former glory. Her first request: force her brother to marry Katherine, a rich but untitled trader’s daughter. Agnes eventually acquiesces, performs the magic, and, with a few drops of Elizabeth’s blood, brings evil into the house.
That opening scene is only the first battle of wits and manipulation which we will see unfold between Elizabeth and Agnes. Leonard brings extraordinary depth to the imposing Elizabeth: her strength, her ruthlessness, and her single-mindedness come together to form the portrait of a woman who refuses to allow her lack of real, inherited power to overcome her desire to see her house and family return to their former glory. As the play develops and we watch Agnes grow in confidence, desire, and audacity, the conflict between the two characters is stunning to watch, as they lie, scheme, and trick their way into what they want.
Leo Bill and Alison Oliver. Photo: Marc Brenner
And here lies the problem at the centre of the play: when given the power to have anything you desire, what do you want? Riled by Elizabeth in the first scene, Agnes eventually reveals her desire to be ‘perfect’ – to feel silk on her skin, to eat off china, to have read every single book in the house, to own every piece of art in the gallery, and to be so knowledgeable, beautiful, and refined that anybody who looks at her is overcome with their own inadequacy.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, asserts over and over that she wants only an heir and money to save her home and family name. But as these desires come to fruition – through Agnes’ increasingly bloody deals with the devil – it’s clear that neither are happy. Power, the play posits, doesn’t mean anything if your desire is too great to be articulated – or satisfied.
Lola Shalam, Aurora Dawson-Hunte and Carly-Sophia Davies. Photo: Marc Brenner
Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Lola Shalam. Photo: Marc Brenner
It’s this attitude which makes Women, Beware the Devil more than a typical modern feminist tale – this is not a girl-boss retelling of Dr Faustus. The play is not interested in female empowerment, but in complicated depictions of women and their relationships to power, themselves, and each other. There are moments of exquisite tenderness between the female characters – when Katherine begs Agnes, now her maid, to call her by her first name so that they can speak to each other as friends or the scene in which the maids tend to a pregnant serving girl.
But almost all the women in the play betray one another at different points – Agnes points the finger at Elizabeth when a witchfinder comes knocking, Katherine forces Agnes to have sex with her husband, Agnes allows Katherine to be hung as a witch and uses magic to steal her identity. None of these betrayals result in any kind of satisfaction.
Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Carly-Sophia Davies, Aurora Dawson-Hunte, and Lola Shalam. Photo: Marc Brenner
Until the last half, when the blood and the betrayal and the violence come to their climax, Women, Beware the Devil offers plenty to laugh at – something which can prove problematic in conjunction with that bleak, empty hole at its centre. A play about characters who ultimately – and intentionally – is written to know very little of their desires and motivations makes for a strange watch. The moments of humour and bathos typical of Jacobean revenge dramas heighten this sensation: at times, the play falls to the level of farce and struggles to climb back up.
by Ismene Ormonde