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Women Beware The Devil

Women, Beware The Devil


Almeida Theatre

WOMEN, BEWARE THE DEVIL at the Almeida Theatre


Women Beware The Devil

“full of artful tricks that allow the action to switch between vast portrait galleries designed to impress, to intimate bedroom spaces”


Women, Beware the Devil, Lulu Raczka’s new play at the Almeida Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold, is an intriguing mix of social history and political commentary, set in the 1640s. It’s a commentary etched upon the domestic lives of women caught up in the beginnings of a civil war that will change their lives forever. What has the devil to do with all this? His power is not what it was, as he engagingly confides in the opening scene. But for all this gutsy introduction to the Prince of Darkness, Raczka’s play is less about devilish magic, and more about hanging onto an ancient house by any means, fair or foul. And if you consider the current preoccupations with the housing crisis in Britain, then Women, Beware the Devil doesn’t seem so much a lesson in history, as a very contemporary play indeed.

Make no mistake, Women, Beware the Devil is a play about a property. It’s also about primogeniture and the powerlessness of women to decide their own fates. Everything revolves around the stately home and the lives of the women bound to it by blood or by service. Lady Elizabeth, unmarried sister of the dimwitted Edward, takes her duties towards the house seriously, as well she might. For if her brother fails to produce a male heir, then she loses her power, but more importantly, loses her home as well. The female servants that surround her are equally vulnerable. Their livelihoods depend on the owners of the house and their goodwill. When Edward refuses to consummate his marriage with a wealthy woman he considers socially beneath him, Elizabeth puts her soul on the line to ensure that the house remains in her family. She hires Agnes, a woman suspected of being a witch by her gossiping neighbours, and instructs her to bewitch her brother into doing his duty by his wife. Agnes initially refuses, but the ways in which Elizabeth and her sister in law Catherine work upon Agnes precipitate a diabolical revenge. Agnes really is a witch, it seems. If the devil does win in this grim story, it is presumably because he set up the property system around the time of William the Conqueror, and then sat back to watch it all play out.

Women, Beware the Devil plays out on a magnificent set designed by Miriam Buether. It is full of artful tricks that allow the action to switch between vast portrait galleries designed to impress, to intimate bedroom spaces. Buether’s set echoes the distances between the characters, with tall windows and a receding perspective that heighten this chilly tale. Goold’s directing is a beautifully crafted choreography designed to emphasize the power relationships between the women, and show how these shift dramatically during the course of the play. The costumes, designed by Evie Gurney, are a lovely mix of Puritan drab and Cavalier excess, with sparkling jewelry for added bling. It’s all spell binding to look at, presided over by a fetching Satan with cute little horns. Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea plays him to perfection, and manages a host of other roles as well. Some devilish, and some all too human. But the lion’s share of the action goes to the actresses in Women, Beware the Devil, as it should. Lydia Leonard as Elizabeth and Alison Oliver as Agnes face off for an epic struggle of good versus evil, and the fact that it’s difficult to tell exactly who is on Team Evil simply enhances our enjoyment of their work. Lola Shalam, Aurora Dawson-Hunte and Carly-Sophia Davies are a convincing trio of gossiping maids with agendas of their own. Leo Bill as Edward, and Ioanna Kimbook as the browbeaten Catherine, have the least sympathetic roles, but they still claim the space convincingly as their own whenever they are on stage.

For all its bravado in theme and presentation, however, Women, Beware the Devil undercuts its own power by being more about domestic politics than witchcraft. Not surprisingly, we are are unconvinced by threats of witchfinders, especially when they are unmasked as one more kind of puritan revolutionary. Yes, they can still do harm. But the age of the witchfinder ended, pretty much, a generation earlier, and the world of the play is now trembling on the edge of a philosophical revolution which will banish superstition (and witches) for good. So maybe the devil is just having one last party with the unfortunate women. Raczka hints that he’s still around, in different disguises, even in our modern world. But that’s a claim that rings hollow in our sceptical age. And it’s an unconvincing ending for a drama that suggests a reckoning with big subjects.


Reviewed on 23rd February 2023

by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Marc Brenner



More shows recently reviewed by Dominica:


Tanz | ★★★★ | Battersea Arts Centre | November 2022
The Return | ★★★ | Cockpit Theatre | November 2022
Little Red Riding Hood | ★★½ | Battersea Arts Centre | December 2022
Orlando | ★★★★ | Garrick Theatre | December 2022
The Art of Illusion | ★★★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | January 2023
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane | ★★★★ | New Victoria Theatre | January 2023
Intruder | ★★★★ | VAULT Festival 2023 | January 2023
666 Hell Lane | ★★★★★ | The Vaults | February 2023
Dance Me | ★★★★★ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | February 2023
Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name | ★★★★★ | The Vaults | February 2023


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Mephisto [A Rhapsody]


Gate Theatre

Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Gate Theatre

Reviewed – 8th October 2019



“Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre”


‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is a vital piece of theatre for our times. Everyone needs to see this play. This French text, by Samuel Gallet, adapted from the novel ‘Mephisto’ by German Klaus Mann, effortlessly translated into English by Chris Campbell, has multiple layers of European history behind it, taking an overtly political stance on the contemporary cultural moment. The Gate Theatre has produced a piece that majestically puts its ‘Manifesto For Our Future’ into practice – is this now the most exciting theatre in London?

Gallet’s play follows the trajectory of Mann’s original novel fairly closely, with some crucial alterations. In a fictional provincial town, Balbek Theatre and its company are struggling to find relevance in turbulent political times. The far-right Front Line is on the rise, skirmishes are taking place in migrant camps, pigs-heads are being left outside their front door. Almost oblivious to the looming threat of fascism, company actor Aymeric Dupré (a sensational Leo Bill), all vanity and self-doubt, has his eyes on stardom.

Rather than selling his soul to the Nazi’s though, Gallet’s version of Hendrik Höfgen sells his soul to apathy. He just doesn’t care. When the right-wing actor Michael (a terrifying Rhys Rusbatch) turns against his company members, Aymeric only thinks about himself – and leaves for the capital. His career jets off, but the human, moral cost is clear.

Campbell’s translation is spot on, with contemporary, flowing language whilst keeping the usefully vague geography of the piece. But this production is so much more than the text. A post-interval addition told by Anna-Maria Nabirye (“the only black actor in the show”) interrogates our conceptions of race in theatre, and even the Gate Theatre isn’t left off the hook. One of the startling things about this production is the way it uses a story about actors to provoke theatres, theatre-goers and creatives into political action. We could be apathetic, we could do another Chekhov, or we could try and change the way our audiences think, feel and respond to the world around them. Are they preaching to the converted? Possibly. But how often do you go to theatre and leave actually wanting to DO something?

Basia Binkowska’s design keeps the backstage onstage, with lighting desk and costume rail visible until the surprising and tender ending takes us back in time to Klaus Mann’s hotel room. A golden fun-house mirror makes up the back wall of the stage, offering the audience distorted reflections of themselves and the actors on stage. Kirsty Housley has directed a company where there are no weak links. The action is kept simple, the audience frequently directly addressed, the text divided cleverly between actors/narrators. Housley also uses space masterfully, expansive gaps between characters as well as closeted crowds in ways that make the empty stage seem anything but.

I have slight reservations about the ending of the play, which doesn’t add much to the two hours of theatre before, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the power of this production. ‘Mephisto [A Rhapsody]’ is something special. Radical, bold, political, funny, scary, shocking, moving – a truly transformational night at the theatre.


Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich

Photography by Cameron Slater


Mephisto [A Rhapsody]

Gate Theatre until 26th October


Previously reviewed at this venue:
Dear Elizabeth | ★★ | January 2019
Why The Child Is Cooking In The Polenta | ★★ | May 2019


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