views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Devil & Stepashka
The Space
13th June 2014


Lydia Lane, Paul Christian Rogers and Tessa Hart as Lisa, Zhenya and Stepashka

Photography © Leigh-Anne Abela

Following on from somewhat dark productions In This House and Hamlyn, where theatre goers at The Space were challenged to unravel grim truths, Goblin Baby Theatre Company have continued the trend with courtroom drama The Devil and Stepashka. Inspired by Tolstoy's The Devil, Claire Booker's play explores what happens when passion crosses over into obsession and - in keeping with the company's focus on political theatre - whether justice can ever be obtained within an inherently corrupt society.

Opening in a bare prison cell, with the set dressed almost surreally, we see Zhenya (Paul Christian Rogers) writing a confession. His old friend and lawyer Boris (Dimitri Shaw) enters and gradually reveals the back story to Zhenya's imprisonment.

Zhenya is portrayed as a humble, contrite man, brought low by fleeting desires. Without the sordid details revealed at this early stage, we are led to believe that this man is the victim of prejudice and circumstance. We feel sorry for his trapped state, and hope for his release. Boris however provides an obvious counterpoint to this, with his gluttony, lust, boastfulness and pride. The overbearing joviality borders on the disconcerting, and there are moments when Shaw's dominating performance seems strained in the face of Rogers' defeatism.

We are distracted from this tension when Zhenya's wife Lisa (Lydia Lane) is introduced. Lane's delicate and well-kept pastels and conservative hair help emphasise her character's frailty. If anything though, there is perhaps too much made out of her vulnerability; we feel her pain, but believe that it is mostly of her own doing.

The complexity of Zhenya's entanglement with Stepashka (Tessa Hart) deepens as the play moves on. As the flashbacks become stronger and more frequent, we almost forget the current events of the trial. Director Leigh-Anne Abela uses projected video sequences to add to the vividness of the past events, creating an almost suffocating intensity as Stepashka entrances Zhenya at both ends of the traverse stage. There are however several moments where the significance of certain features is not made clear, for example, the violin held by Stepashka is not mentioned amongst an otherwise vivid account of her simple earthy charms.

Paul Christian Rogers and Lydia Lane as Zhenya and Lisa

Photography © Leigh-Anne Abela

Although some detail is lost, Abela however manages to bring out the intense emotions of this piece, cleverly framing the love triangle between Zhenya, his wife and the memory of his lover. She tortures and torments Zhenya and his inability to resist the voluptuous, sensual women he has been involved with. Lisa's realisation that she is never going to match up to the honesty and beauty of Zhenya's memory of Stepashka causes her madness to escalate, leaving us with two passionate individuals, choked by a dark desire, spiralling out of control in front of us.

Treating the audience as members of the jury during the courtroom scenes may have been done before, but that doesn't stop it from being effective. Initially, this feels uncomfortable, as Boris locks eyes with us directly, willing us to believe his defence of his client. Although Shaw is used largely as a device to move on the plot rather than a two-dimensional character in his own right, here he is given more of an opportunity to show what he can do, and manages to draw us in.

Over the course of the play, you come to realise that the characters are all quite mad in their own special way, perhaps not unexpectedly so given the influence of Tolstoy. Zhenya is clearly psychotic bordering on schizophrenic; Lisa is fairly obviously neurotic, even displaying the physical symptoms of nervous disease; Boris is as sociopathic as a stereotypical lawyer should be, adding a dark side to his clownish actions which leave his gags falling somewhat deadened.

With Stepashka, by contrast, being dead throughout the play, our only way to judge her is through the flashbacks and descriptions of her by Zhenya himself and Dasha (Stepashka's sister, also Hart). These paint her as a common woman with common desires, who lives for the herself and gets pleasure from the pleasure of others.

The Devil & Stepaskha is an intriguing new work which leaves you alarmed that such obvious madness could play out so dangerously. The ending leaves us without the resolution we crave, and the journey is admittedly slow in places, but overall, it's an engaging piece of new writing.

The Devil and Stepashka ran from 10th June to 20th June 2014 at The Space. It will transfer to Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre from 19th to 20th July 2014.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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