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"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Women, Beware of the Devil… “Meatloaf on a motorbike with Kenny Williams in a side-car wouldn’t have seemed out of place” @almeidatheatre

What on earth did we just watch? Is it a joke on us? Maybe.
Last Saturday night Stuart and I went to see utterly confounding play Women, Beware of the Devil at the Almeida Theatre in London glitzy Islington. It was certainly a unique night of theatre!
The play is partly about the Devil. That much is clear because He turns up in the first scene to address us directly. But is it about modernity too? The evil in modern society? A feminist parable? Who knows?
A 17th-century stable cowgirl, Agnes (Alison Oliver), rumoured to be a witch, makes a Faustian pact with the lady of the big house, Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard). Agnes then travels though the posh household granting wishes, much to the existing housemaids’ annoyance, rising in status but never losing her dastardly reputation. But is she a good witch? She seems to think she is.
The play begins as a nod to The Crucible, complete with Puritan hysteria and hearsay along with rumblings of the civil war of 1642, but goes off in some pretty strange directions. The plot bends and twists from bedroom kink, to incestuous assault and pregnancy, to bloody battle. It’s a wild ride. 
Directed by Rupert Goold, it comes with his usual clean televisual style: Evie Gurney’s period costumes are stunning. Miriam Buether’s set has a gorgeous black gothic canvas at the back resembling the perspective of a Dutch painting. The performances are superb too, from Oliver’s conniving Agnes to Leonard’s menacing Lady Elizabeth, and Leo Bill as her bonkers brother Edward who keeps demanding beef at the dinner table in one of his many riffs about cows. But the characters themselves appear like a collection of extras from Carry on Screaming, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Addams Family. Meatloaf on a motorbike with Kenny Williams in a side-car wouldn’t have seemed out of place. 
The story and the dialogue both defy conventional logic. The characters behave in bizarre ways. The plot is (deliberately?) weird. Is it a comedy or a horror? It looks at times like Bridgerton on LSD. It might be a pastiche of the period drama itself, or one big metaphor (but for what?). It wobbles somewhere between a surreal episode of Blackadder, a Peter Greenaway film and a Monty Python sketch. As we sit puzzling it out, there is the passing thought that the joke is on us.
Yet, in spite of it all, there is something exhilarating about its disruptions, which seem deliberate. The devil (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea) tells us at the start that this play is “pretty long but don’t worry it’s enjoyable”. He’s not wrong.
Lulu Raczka is a bold and brilliant playwright whose previous work shows risk-taking. Maybe this is a risk too far. If it is a failure, it is a heroic one, performing the rare feat of leaving me impressed, exasperated and temporarily speechless. What on earth did we just watch?
We certainly talked about it a lot afterwards!


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