The Devil & Stepashka, Ye Olde Rose and Crown - Review

You’re the Devil in disguise.” So said Elvis Presley in his 1963 hit. The blame game in sexual politics has always been prevalent in culture, from the Pandora of the ancient Greeks opening THAT box to Eve eating from the forbidden tree in Eden. With that cultural baggage hanging around, will any legal system truly be unbiased?

Using author Claire Booker’s adaptation of one of Tolstoy short stories, Goblin Baby Theatre explores this issue as one man faces trial for killing a woman with whom he had an affair. Returning to run his father’s country estate in the wake of his death, Zhenya misses the opportunities that life in the city offers, especially meeting the diversity of female company. Through a mutual acquaintance, Zhenya arranges to meet Stepashka, a peasant on the estate for regular trysts. These end when he starts courting Lisa – someone from his own social sphere – but the old magic isn’t there any more...

Throughout the play, people are placed on pedestals with unrealistic expectations. In the case of Lisa, (Zhenya’s wife), she thinks her husband is the victim of an lying, unstable woman, while Zhenya himself  thinks of Lisa as pure, worthy, but not as a sensual person – at least not like Stepashka.

In truth, Zhenya has been lying to himself about how he really feels about Stepashka, not acknowledging that it is more than a purely physical relationship. In some ways his plight mirrors the plot of Federico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. In that play, Leonardo Felix has a relationship with a woman, but breaks it off for reasons of his own. Later when he is unhappily married, Felix hears that his former love is about to get married herself. His reawakened feelings then trigger a sequence of tragic events. In Zhenya’s case, the return of Stepashka in his life and someone else receiving her affections is enough to send him over the edge.

When Zhenya talks to his lawyer and friend Boris about the subject of women, it is clear that both have a different way of appreciating the opposite sex. At first it seems like their conversation revolves around the usual jocular parameters, but it becomes clear that Zhenya doesn’t find articulating his thoughts pleasurable. For Zhenya, giving into his libido is something that he has to indulge from time to time but not admit to, especially to himself.

Stepashka however still haunts his thoughts.  While Zhenya is incarcerated – both literally and by his own conflicted emotions – in his mind, even in death, Stepashka is freer tha he is. Unencumbered by guilt or sexual hang-ups and possessing an apologetic lust for life. The decision by director Leigh-Anne Abela to show projection footage of Zhenya’s memories with Stepashka was an inspired choice, as it allowed the audience to see an unadulterated view of events and a glimpse into Zhenya’s mind.

Aspects of The Devil & Stepashka also mirror Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, where a man is on trial following the acrimonious fallout after an affair. However, while John Proctor resisted being drawn in the hysterical accusations of supernatural activities, Zhenya uses it as his own defence for ‘being beguiled by Stepashka’s charms’ and having to put a stop to them. Of course, men blaming women for being ‘bewitched’ and having to satisfy their ‘insatiable’ libido is the oldest story in the book.

In ancient Jewish folklore, Adam’s first wife was not Eve but Lilith. However, because she preferred to be in the dominant sexual position on top as opposed to the ‘submissive’ missionary position, she had ‘unnatural desires’, and therefore ‘obviously’ demonic. This idea filtered through to medieval folklore where she-demons called succabae would come to men’s beds and be responsible for ‘nocturnal discharges’. *Ahem*

But I digress.

In some ways, the trappings of religion in the play seem at odds with today’s secular society. However, we only have to look at Graham Green’s The End of the Affair to see how a single person’s belief in the divine – regardless of others’ views – can determine the fate of all. In Stepashka it’s the undying belief and loyalty of Lisa that ultimately turns things around.

Lydia Lane plays Lisa with conviction, and one senses that Lisa’s solace from the Church is the only thing that stops her being completely swallowed by doubts and fears. Tessa Hart who plays Stepashka and her sister Dasha is the epitome of insouciance, especially in contrast to the understandably weary Zhenya and Lisa. Paul Christian Rogers delivers a believable, stoical performance as Zhenya, while Dimitri Shaw as Boris is as ardent and animated as Zhenya is still.

In some of the performances of the play, it has been left to the audience to decide whether Zhenya is guilty or not – forum theatre in action. I love that type of interaction, so it’s good that Goblin Baby have the opportunity to utilise it.

Before I started writing this piece, I read a news story about the most horrific assault in the Middle East. But because of the clout of the powers-that-be, the perpetrator in question has been protected from prosecution. The world is full of women with no voice of their own or no one to speak on their behalf. It is good that Goblin Baby Theatre in its own way highlights their plight in an entertaining, but provoking fashion.

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