Women, Beware the Devil at the Almeida review: a wild, slippery ride

Alison Oliver and Leo Bill (Marc Brenner)
Alison Oliver and Leo Bill (Marc Brenner)

Well, I didn’t have a folk-horror tale about witchcraft and the English Civil War on my bingo card for London theatre in 2023, but here we are.

Lulu Raczka’s ferociously bold, deliberately anachronistic play brings the devil on stage, horns and all (and reading an Evening Standard on his first appearance). It uses events and attitudes from the 1640s to throw light on modern-day inequalities in wealth and gender, and on how revolutions devour themselves.

At least, I think it does. The show – in a wry and raucous production by Rupert Goold, featuring a fine central performance from Lydia Leonard - is as baffling as it is intriguing. Those who like nice, neat theatre should give this a swerve. I was bewitched, though I’m not entirely sure why.

Leonard plays Elizabeth de Clare, who stands to lose her ancestral home if her bratty brother Edward (Leo Bill) doesn’t produce an heir. For her, this issue overshadows the looming national conflict. So she turns to Agnes (Alison Oliver), a servant accused of witchcraft, for occult help.

Magic happens, though not in the way anyone plans. Agnes’s material wishes supersede her pious hopes. There are blood offerings, body swaps and menaces made towards unborn children. The upending of hierarchies in the great house prefigures Oliver Cromwell’s victory over Charles I.

Alison Oliver in Women, Beware the Devil (Marc Brenner)
Alison Oliver in Women, Beware the Devil (Marc Brenner)

The speech is a mix of pastiche-historic and modern, the body language defiantly contemporary. Characters sometimes sardonically address the audience. There are period-style folk songs and a foreshortened set of a grand hall on which designer Miriam Buether stages painterly tableaux. A tiny but vertically elongated four-poster bed pops up and down like a periscope.

I think – pretension klaxon! – that the chequered floor may be a reference to the chess motif in John Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy Women Beware Women to which this play owes an obvious debt. And Elizabeth’s house stands for England in the same way a garden did in Mike Bartlett’s 2017 play Albion at this theatre. But I detest shows that require or reward this sort of foreknowledge. I kind of detest myself for mentioning it.

Raczka’s first play Nothing won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award in 2014: she tackles nothing less than ideas of good and evil here. Agnes is forced into wickedness: the Devil may be Elizabeth, rather than the chap with horns; and maybe it’s we humans who are evil and Satan is just a facilitator. But the script is too slippery to accommodate a firm moral template. Though the aristocrats are utterly degenerate, the puritans at the gate also seem to be in the Devil’s thrall.

The shape-shifting audacity of the play makes it exciting to watch, if ultimately confounding. Leonard holds queenly sway with a mixture of casual amorality and gritted-teeth exasperation. Bill too is very funny as the lascivious, incestuous and fundamentally cowardly Edward: a man who’s cavalier in the worst possible sense. Oliver, a relative newcomer, is impressive, though seems at times boggled by her role.

This is a wild ride with the Devil. And if anyone can conjure up a theory that explains it all, I’d love to hear it.

Almeida Theatre, to March 25; almeida.co.uk