‘The play struggles for dramatic momentum’: WOMEN BEWARE THE DEVIL – Almeida Theatre

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Almeida Theatre, London – until 25 March 2023

What are the limits of a woman’s ambition at a time when she had no power? Lula Raczka’s new play Women Beware the Devil explores accusations of witchcraft and the meaning of evil at the outbreak of the Civil War in the early part of the 1640s, but while that makes for an interesting premise and context, the story is really about the ambitions of three women of different ages and class in the same house trying to control their environment and the future through their actions.

It is not always successful as drama, however, struggling to find an even tone between comedy and commentary, with activities and motivations emerging in haphazard and often obscure ways, but there is an underlying purpose here that considers the physical structures in which women lived and the extent to which they had power through their relationship with menfolk as well as how their bodies became battlegrounds that could be overcome as well as deployed to achieve their ends.

The Almeida Theatre has had a strong run of form, a series of particularly acclaimed work culminating in the almost instantaneous transfer of A Streetcar Named Desire to the West End. Women Beware the Devil is its first stumble in a while, a work that feels unfinished, not quite aligning its dramatic ambitions and messaging with the structures and management of the material to convey the plot to the audience.

There is a strong basis here, however, in which a young stable-girl, to whose name is attached considerable suspicion, is invited to become a lady’s maid by the mistress of a large country house who needs her brother to marry and produce an heir in order to save the estate from entail to a loathed cousin. This combination of mercenary motives and the potential for devilry is filled with possibility, combining magical means and earthly ambition with the need to arrive at a practical outcome.

Raczka creates that initial scenario well, particularly the ambiguity of a forbidden and highly dangerous method by exploring the power dynamic between the high-born Lady Elizabeth who in manner and confidence is intimidating and certain of herself, and the lowly and introverted servant Agnes who denies any alleged powers but agrees to the bargain nonetheless. That Elizabeth needs her and cannot manage her brother or their family destiny alone is significant in a play that seeks to subvert established notions of governance and position, although it is unclear until the second part of the story just how important the role of dynasty and heritage will be when Raczka’s visions for presenting a ‘world turned upside down’ emerges in more ways than one.

Christopher Hill, the Marxist historian who used that phrase as the title of his seminal book about radical religious groups in the Civil War, would be jumping for joy at Raczka’s interpretation of an event that forms the backdrop to this drama in which the Royalist central family endure chaos without and within. The play begins in 1640 and ends shortly after King Charles leaves London and war breaks out, with the slow dissolution of the monarch’s power mirroring the events occurring within the household. As the old, established order crumbles outside it is frequently referenced in the text, with characters debating the Godly appointment of the monarch, the duty to serve in his army and, later in the play, Charles’s human failures that lead to violence.

Within the house a similar challenging of authority takes place, although that is perhaps not explicit enough until Act Two when Agnes embraces opportunity and, bored with her victory, looks to destroy everything she has won. But it is Lady Elizabeth that sets out the stakes, repeatedly referencing the fabric of the house that she holds so dearly and risks her soul to preserve. The house, she argues not unsympathetically, is both a landmark and a source of employment for generations of local families, a symbol of constancy and continuity whose privilege provides reassurance and stability – a sentiment echoed by the other servants. Agnes’s enthusiasm for destruction is less convincing and harder for the audience to follow, although Hill might enjoy its notions of leveling the playing field.

It is here that Women Beware the Devil becomes most muddled as the piece moves towards its dramatic crescendo, Parliamentarian forces heading for the house bringing, to Agnes’s mind, a form of liberation from oppressive rule and stale codes of behaviour that prevent stable-girls from becoming great ladies. And while Raczka allows Lady Elizabeth to fleetingly suggest that Agnes’s supposed saviours will be far harder on witches than the previous regime, it is not pursued any further. This rather romantic and simplistic view of the Parliamentarian forces is as old as Hill’s 1970s book, and serves no clear purpose in this play. It is never clear why Agnes can predict King Charles’s fate – which was certainly not a possibility in 1642, even as late as 1648 few believed that regicide was a serious consideration – but not foresee the extreme Puritanism that will grow out of the Parliamentarian cause in the years ahead, and, most importantly, why in a play about the strength and ambitions of women, Agnes puts her faith in a group of men who will pursue witchcraft with a fervency as yet unseen.

Raczka’s play is most frustrating in its presentation of women’s relationships, pitting them against one another and thereby reducing the fault of men in the pursuit and pronouncement of witchcraft. The central triangle between servant Agnes, lady of the house Elizabeth and the woman her brother marries, Catherine, starts well enough, the characters forming allegiances with one another and working towards a common goal, to produce a male heir to protect the estate. Elizabeth and Agnes are united by a blood pact that brings Catherine into the story, and having fulfilled her side of the bargain, Agnes is appointed as Catherine’s maid where the women become friends of a kind, sharing confidences almost as equals.

But just as Raczka seems to be heading towards an exploration of male failures, demonstrated through the inability of Catherine’s husband to consummate his marriage and instead exploits the bodies of his servants, the writer takes the story into a less satisfactory direction, creating situations in which the women betray and condemn one another for personal gain. Each one has their own ambitions to pursue, Elizabeth wants to maintain her family name and home, Catherine wants to fulfill the duties of a wife and Agnes, when pushed, longs to wear silks and know the finery of aristocracy. Setting women against one another is a tired trope, particularly in a story that not only allows men to prosper from their demise but absolves them from any responsibility for it, but it also makes little sense in a play that is ostensibly about witchcraft.

Raczka’s plotting feels arbitrary at times, a jumble of scenes that picks up and puts down different character motivations without sufficient explanation. Why Elizabeth feels that asking an alleged witch for help is her only option is never clear, nor why her brother refuses to marry when so much is at stake. The relationship between brother and sister is once shown to be inappropriate, resulting in an act of attempted sexual violence which remains unexplained and why Agnes seeks revenge against this family, and Elizabeth in particular, when this is the only place she been treated with humanity and without suspicion makes little sense either. Likewise, Catherine makes some strange choices that lead to her own downfall but few of Raczka’s decision create a coherent whole. Moments are compelling but Women Beware the Devil lacks a consistent message, implying women should be far warier of one another.

Ultimately, there is very little examination of witchcraft itself, and while the early part of the play suggests Agnes may be maligned, protesting her innocence and a desire to be ‘good’ repeatedly, Raczka doesn’t offer any rational alternatives to the possibility that Agnes is a witch and therefore controlling events, a decision the writer fully embraces later in the play, while the unpleasant and torturous methods of the Witchfinder are glossed over in a single scene. It means the play struggles for dramatic momentum, mixing together lots of different kinds of scene that distract from rather than support the eventual resolution, leaving the audience wondering what much of it was for.

Director Rupert Goold has found some pacing through the staging, a beautiful long-room set created by Miriam Buether and a checkerboard floor that suggests heritage but also creates space to imply lots of different places in a grand house, largely implied with no furniture. A four poster bed emerging from the floor is a great piece of design by Buether, allowing scenes to take place fluidly between different characters in different rooms at the same time. Evie Gurney’s costumes are equally impressive and redolent of the period, while still suggesting character – monochrome but seductive for Lady Elizabeth, while Agnes and Catherine pointedly share a dress design.

The performers too are working really hard ahead of this week’s Press Night to make this play come to life, although there is too little time to address these intrinsic concerns. Not seen on a London stage since Oslo, Lydia Leonard is particularly excellent, a confident and ultimately likable Lady Elizabeth who will go to any lengths to protect her family legacy, and Leonard invests her with a consistent dignity even at her character’s lowest moments. Alison Oliver moves from reticent and beleaguered to invincible as Agnes, a character whose trajectory and motivation is not easy to plot, while Ioanna Kimbrook adds to a growing CV with her childish Catherine who eventually finds some inner steel when her ambitions are crushed. Leo Bill is a little cartoonish as as Elizabeth’s brother, another character whose behaviours feel inconsistently realised while Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea is the face of every other man and the devil. These may all be his disguises but again it’s not a device that Raczka does anything with.

Three characters directly address the audience in Women Beware the Devil, drawing contemporary parallels by asking whether we still value country houses, heritage and duty in the same way and if we even need the devil now that more human evils have taken his place. In a stronger piece, those might be interesting questions to ponder, but the play gets so lost in its exploration of the witch trope that it forgets to object to the malignity of three women betraying each other over a man and never challenges the role they played in hunting and destroying women accused of witchcraft. In a story that puts ambitious women at the forefront of the drama, it seems a shame today to watch them destroy each other instead.

Women Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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