Review of ‘Women, Beware The Devil’: “Hazed darkness”

Hell rises onstage in this original play about ambition, greed and the powers of the occult. Guillermo Nazara reviews this new limited-running production delivered by renowned director Rupert Goold, to share his thoughts on a piece where good and evil are partners in crime.

“As far as God goes, I am a nonbeliever. But when it comes to the Devil – well, that’s something else…”. The personification of evil has been a subject of both horror and fascination for probably every community in the history of mankind. From the Western conception of the Almighty’s fearful enemy to more primeval depictions inspired by the forcible dangers of nature, humanity has always been inclined to grant the responsibility of the wrongful acts that plague the world (and to engross such list with all of those that don’t align with their conception of properness) to their own created figure of imperishable wickedness.

Witches and Satan have always been an enticing topic for storytellers (especially those who earn their living -sort to speak- by praying them away). Before the more family-friendly approach sorcery was given by the turn of the last century, the generalized public concern regarding the servants of the Antichrist (allegedly able to vomit their own souls to accommodate the Dark Lord’s demands) led to thousand of episodes of outright paranoia – many of which sadly not restrained to the boundaries of the written page.

Such convoluted background serves as the starting point for Women, Beware The Devil – a new play by dramaturg Lulu Raezka performed under the experienced baton of Almeida Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rupert Goold. Set amidst the tumultuous revolt against Charles I of England, the piece stars Alison Oliver as Agnes, a poor young girl rejected by society for her suspected involvement with the black arts, who finds a chance of redemption when offered a job at an aristocratic house, run by noble socialite Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard). First hired as a courtesan for Elizabeth’s brother’s wife, the matron’s obsession over having an heir to defend their state will eventually lead her to an initial pact with the mistress of hell – later to find that her attendant hides other (and higher) plans for herself…

Despite the gloomy undertone the piece walks on, the show does not much bring out an atmosphere of uneasiness (let alone terror), but more of an entertaining journey through history, lore and occasional farcical comedy. Relying on the Elizabethan technique of baiting the plot away as an introductory device (with a deliciously malignant wink -or b*tch-slap- on the current woke sensitivity), the performance succeeds at providing an enthralling recount that, although will not make you jump out of your seats, will neither fail to bore due to its well-established pacing and amusing narrative twists. Though not achieving a sufficiently strong and conclusive ending, the overall tale functions efficiently and also manages to carry a good bunch of memorable scenes and characters – not raising, however, as much connection with the latter as probably desired (both by author and audience).

Featuring a fixed set design by Miriam Buether (with the addition of moveable props to transition from space to space), the visuals are the most praisable trait of this production – enhanced by a lavish costume display by Evie Gurney and, especially in this case, the alluring lighting credited to Tim Lutkin – providing continuous context and dramatism, altogether resulting in a cohesively riveting ambience of fright and beauty. On the other hand, Adam Cork’s sung-through compositions, mixing traditional Renaissance-style melodies with modernized pop-like harmonies, endow the show with not only smoother transitions but also further intricacy to an already highly detailed montage.

As for the cast, Lydia Leonard gives one of the best renditions of the entire troupe, bringing sassiness to a role that, far from coming up as obnoxious, manages to exude sympathy and approachability despite her questionable nature. At the same time, Leo Bill, playing the part of the flamboyant master of the house Edward, steals the show at every possible comical moment, thanks to a magnetic stage presence which is combined with exceptional naturality.

Here comes a piece dealing with subjects of horror that will however not horrify you. It’s actually a good narration, that though could take advantage of some more refining, still holds plentiful attraction to make your evening at the theatre a much enjoyable one. It might not be perfect, but maybe for that to happen, the writer would have had to sell their soul to whom must no be named – and we all know how the Tories work….

All pictures credit to Marc Brenner.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Women, Beware the Devil plays at London’s Almeida Theatre from Monday to Saturday until 25 March. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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