Directed with such forensic detail by Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold, Women, Beware the Devil is one of those thrilling productions where almost every element of its staging is layered with multiple meanings and interpretations. A sinister story of a house rocked by witchcraft, it is in every sense enchanting.
I mean, just look at the trippy set design from Miriam Buether which draws you in to the action. Not too dissimilar from her gothic black and white decor for Spring Awakening, the optical illusion-like set slants inwards towards the back in a way which makes the quietly lit upstage so far out of reach. If we’re talking about symbolism, it alludes to a heaven and holiness which is so far out of reach for the doomed house/corridor in which we find ourselves. It also ties in so neatly into a line about conventions reaching as far back as they do forward, and it’s these traditions which crumble like the houses foundations over the two hours in the auditorium.
That’s not really a spoiler, by the way. Nathan Amarkwei-Laryea is immediately introduced to us as a suitably careless Devil, and he’s all too happy to share spoilers around a witch being hung and a whole family killed. The suspense comes in how things could descend to such dire depths, and in just how precarious things quickly become. Lady Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard) wants to ensure her brother Edward (The Duchess of Malfi’s Leo Bill) elopes with Katherine (Ioanna Kimbook) to secure an heir for the house, and will even go as far as to recruit suspected witch Agnes (Alison Oliver) as a maid to ensure that happens. The black and white chess board-like floor design could not be more appropriate for the way in which Elizabeth contorts family affairs in order to get what she wants.
A whining Edward can’t get what he wants, though, which is less about a loving relationship with Katherine (he’d rather get one of Elizabeth’s maids pregnant) and more about a good slice of beef. It’s the sort of pathetic pomp we all associate with the 1600s, and writer Lulu Raczka mocks it endlessly, though at times a bit too much, leaving in a few emotive lines of dialogue which read as a bit too on-the-nose in terms of stating the obvious. Similarly, the shrieking, stabbing sounds which accompany a scene change soon become a tad over the top. They’re not necessary when everything is already so on edge through Goold’s direction.
As well as his particular interest in meat, Edward’s minor subplot actually underscores the wider narrative which jumps off the stage and into the 21st century: truth – both in the sense of what that means exactly, but also the very nature of what it is to be true to oneself. Today, truth is post-truth, and The Devil complains that we hardly ever blame him for societal collapse like we did in the 1600s. In this historical setting, Agnes must decide between good versus evil, and toy with multiple roles expected of her; Katherine must confront womanhood; and Edward has to deal with a nation so sceptical of reality (its obsession with witchcraft doesn’t exactly help) that it’s undermining confidence in his beloved King. Chaos is creeping in, and the Devil is loving it – and to be fair, when it all becomes so dramatic, so are we.
Women, Beware the Devil is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 25 March.
A relaxed performance is scheduled for 15 March, with an audio described performance taking place on 18 March.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.