This confounding play is nothing if not unique. It is partly about devilry. That much is clear because the devil turns up in the first scene to address us directly. Then, a 17th-century stablehand, Agnes (Alison Oliver), rumoured to have dark powers, makes a Faustian pact with the lady of the house, Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard). Agnes travels though the household, rising in status but never losing her reputation as a witch.
What begins as a spin on The Crucible, with Puritan hysteria and hearsay along with rumblings of the civil war of 1642, goes off in strange directions. The plot bends and twists from bedroom kink to incestuous assault and pregnancy.
Directed by Rupert Goold, it comes with his characteristically clean, televisual glamour: Evie Gurney’s period costumes are stunning. Miriam Buether’s set has a gorgeous black gothic canvas at the back and with scenes of such sumptuousness at the front the mise-en-scène resembles a Dutch painting. The performances are superb, from Oliver’s conniving Agnes to Leonard’s dastardly Lady Elizabeth, and Leo Bill as her profligate 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 The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Addams Family.
Story and dialogue defy conventional logic. Characters behave in bizarre ways. The plot is abstruse. It could be comedy or horror. It looks at times like Bridgerton on acid. 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 all wrong.
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 this critic impressed, exasperated but temporarily speechless. What just happened?
At the Almeida theatre, London, until 25 March