'Women, Beware the Devil' review — Rupert Goold directs a stylish play with little substance

Read our two-star review of Women, Beware the Devil at the Almeida Theatre through 25 March. Lulu Raczka’s play follows a woman protecting her family legacy.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

All great talents come an occasional cropper, and so it has happened to the hit machine that is Rupert Goold. In the meantime, the director of last year’s triumphant Patriots and Tammy Faye is busy at his Islington base, the Almeida, with Lulu Raczka’s Jacobean-edged, Women, Beware the Devil.

A previous winner of the Sunday Times Playwriting Prize, Raczka this time signals via her title a mash-up of two bygone theatrical bloodbaths, The White Devil and Women Beware Women, that are infrequently staged these days.

Raczka’s coyly structured play wastes no time spilling blood but not before it has introduced a “literal devil” in Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea’s cheerfully grim harbinger of doom, who welcomes us to a modern-day marked out by the woes of the NHS before rewinding the clock to 1640 on the eve of the English Civil War.

What ensues, courtesy of set designer Miriam Buether and her wondrous lighting colleague, Tim Lutkin, is a series of painterly tableaux that should make the production of interest to art historians possibly more than anyone else. As a play, the script, heralded by the Devil as “pretty long”, is in fact of average length but induces above-average quantities of head-scratching.

The result feels at least a draft away from full potential except as an occasional study in inadvertent camp, events careering sufficiently from the grotesque to the glib that you soon learn to accept what comes moment by moment. Along the way, you'll surely clock nods not just to its 17th-century forbears but to more recent plays such as The Crucible and even the BDSM-themed Broadway and West End entry, Venus in Fur, as well.

Channelling a younger Kristin Scott Thomas, a stylish Lydia Leonard takes up the period gauntlet thrown her direction by the Devil. Playing the fiercely controlling Elizabeth de Clare, the onetime co-star of Oslo is possessive about the elegant Peccant Hall, the country estate whose checkerboard flooring she calls home. (Buether’s set recedes impressively into the distance, a comfy-looking bed rising up phallically on cue toward the front at the stage at regular intervals.)

Swanning about in floor-length splendour courtesy of costume designer Evie Gurney’s clothes, this aristo threatens to hang a suppliant young servant girl, Agnes. That’s unless the indrawn social inferior, herself a possible witch, helps encourage Elizabeth’s roving-eyed brother, Edward (Leo Bill), to marry the whiny Katherine (Ioanna Kimbook).

Katherine moans about her fat cheeks — this despite not having “any beef”, meat being a prominent image in the play — and becomes enmeshed in a labyrinthine power play that brings the first act to a close with Agnes advancing to the lip of the stage to send the audience into the interval on the word “boo”.

Alison Oliver’s presence as Agnes furthers the Almeida's seeming connection to televised adaptations of the novelist Sally Rooney. Oliver led the cast of Conversations with Friends, just as Paul Mescal, who came to fame in Rooney’s Normal People on the small screen, of course led the West End-bound revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that preceded this show at the Almeida.

And, like Mescal, Oliver can hold the stage. “Think what you could be if you just let it all go,” Agnes asks the noblewoman Elizabeth in due course as the play ratchets up in volume, and absurdity, and throws coherence to the wind. I’m as amenable as the next person to unruliness in the theatre — a play like Jerusalem that refuses to rein itself in.

But the power struggles on view need far better definition (and less OTT acting) to land with appropriate force, and I kept wondering what the gifted Bill might make of that “future history play”, King Charles III, that Goold directed at this address well before its eponymous subject had actually acceded to the throne.

Greater consistency of tone might help. As it is, it’s difficult to reconcile a smirking tendency towards archness with passages of genuine authority and passion as characters shape-shift, both physically and psychically. I applaud the Almeida’s decision to forego star names to give the next generation a chance, but the play needs greater cunning and more significant horror, too. It’s all well and good for a show to chance the word “boo” but not if one’s response to the scare tactics is a mere shrug.

Women, Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre through 25 March.

Photo credit: Lola Shalam, Aurora Dawson-Hunte, Carly-Sophia Davies (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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