Women, Beware The Devil at the Almeida Theatre is a difficult play to pin down.
It starts in the modern day with the ‘literal’ devil (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) breaking the fourth wall to lament how he isn’t evoked or blamed for anything anymore. He also cheekily spoils the plot of the play.
We are then catapulted to the 17th century to the home of Lady Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard) and her brother Edward (Leo Bill).
It’s a castle, literally and figuratively. For Elizabeth, it’s a place which represents family and tradition but also somewhere she has some agency as an unmarried woman.
However, the cost of repairs is crippling the family finances, and Edward has no inclination to marry the rich and beautiful Katherine (Ioanna Kimbook) that Elizabeth has lined up. Katherine comes from new money rather than the gentry and is too easy for Edward – he prefers the maids.
So Elizabeth turns to Agnes (Alison Oliver), about whom rumours of witchcraft swirl. While the house’s maids live in fear of witches and don’t trust Agnes, Elizabeth sees an opportunity to solve a problem.
Agnes is reluctant to help – she is a good person – but Elizabeth doesn’t leave her much choice. Her need is greater than Agnes’, after all.
Hysteria and change in the air
The backdrop to all this is England in the grip of hysteria about witches and a growing mood of rebellion and civil war. Change is in the air, but some want to cling to the old ways.
There is a lot going on in Lulu Raczka’s play. On the one hand, it exposes the precarious position of women in 17th-century society, particularly women of lower classes, while on the other, it shows women using what powers they have to get what they want – and get the upper hand.
Its female characters are refreshingly multi-layered and complex, not easily likeable, and Raczka tests loyalty and empathy.
The play also highlights snobbery and the hypocrisy of class, with one rule for the lady of the house and another for Agnes.
There is also a debate about tradition and maintaining the status quo. Agnes isn’t convinced by the argument that the King should stay simply because he’s the King.
Ideas of fact vs ‘true facts’ also float around. Edward makes reference to how people are questioning everything, even the colour of the sky. It is one of several references that draw contemporary parallels.
But the overall tone of the play is where it is hard to pin down. It has a light, fresh, contemporary feel, it’s fun and cheeky, but it’s also dark, sometimes sinister, with an edge of horror (an eye-gouging scene was removed during rehearsals).
The second half sees a significant change in circumstances in the house, some of which are a stretch to reconcile. Everything comes to a head in what feels like a prolonged hysteria. There is lots of crying and shouting, which dulls the impact.
But it certainly isn’t a dull play; there is plenty to ponder it’s just that some of that pondering is ‘eh?’
I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half stars.
Women, Beware The Devil, Almeida Theatre
Written by Lulu Raczka
Directed by Rupert Goold
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an interval
Booking until 25 March; for more information and to buy tickets, head to the Almeida Theatre website
The Beach House, Park Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 11 March
Trouble in Butetown, Donmar Warehouse ⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 25 March
Linck & Mulhahn, Hampstead Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 4 March
Phaedra, National Theatre ⭐️⭐️ for the staging ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ for the play and performances booking until 8 April.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half, booking until 4 February (This production will transfer to the West End on 20 March).