Zhenya (Paul Christian Rogers) is a rational man. He knows that if he succumbs to his passion for the peasant Stepashka (Tessa Hart), his idyllic marriage to another woman will be wrenched out of joint. And yet he knows that he can never get Stepashka out of his mind. The superstitiously secular, domestic world of Claire Booker’s The Devil and Stepashka manages to create a believable male Antigone in what ends up to be very literally one hell of a double-bind.
On certain days, the audience can vote on one of two different ‘endings’ (beginnings?) to the play: does Zhenya escape his dilemma by killing Stepashka, or by killing himself? This is a nod to the short story by Tolstoy on which the play is based, and for which Tolstoy wrote two alternative conclusions. But Booker’s plot, which on non-voting days deploys the first option and visits Zhenya in his prison cell awaiting trial for murder, adds texture and more of a female angle to Tolstoy’s narrative.
Lydia Lane is wonderfully precise and pernickety as Zhenya’s doting wife, Lisa, who is given much more space in Booker’s version of the tale. Whether she is folding sheets or inquiring incessantly after Stepashka’s child (who looks suspiciously like Zhenya) she has the harassed, loving, frantic possessiveness of a woman fearing, but refusing to believe, that she has been replaced. Lane makes it clear that Lisa finds validation only in Zhenya’s approval. This is excruciatingly obvious when she appears with a red scarf identical to Stepashka’s and tries, awkward as a ballerina in a music box, to please him by dancing a sensual ‘peasant dance’, just like her rival.
Onstage, hanging patches of criss-crossed metal in front of Zhenya’s seat suggest a prison cell, whilst their shadows on the backstage wall artfully conjure up a barred wall behind. The Devil and Stepashka makes effective use of film projections, too, to evoke Zhenya’s memories of Stepashka, showing that these recollections are as crisp and vivid as if they were happening now. In the context of this use of film, it is striking when the (now dead) Stepashka stalks right in to Zhenya’s prison cell as he stands reminiscing, causing us to turn our gaze from the cold film projection above to the real body of Stepashka sauntering below. This powerfully demonstrates Stepashka’s physicality in Zhenya’s mind and her propensity, even after death, to exceed anything but three-dimensional representation.
At times if feels that this play presents us more with the friction between character types, trapped in particular social roles, than with autonomous beings. In general, however, the meeting of the lawyer, peasant women, middle class husband, and provincial wife makes for a series of interesting, well-acted clashes. When the untouchable, buoyant lawyer Boris (played with callous gallantry by Dimitri Shaw) questions Stepashka’s sister Dasha (Hart) disapprovingly about Stepashka’s various lovers, Dasha’s repeated plea ‘but she so enjoyed it!’ pits an unabashed assertion of women’s right to pleasure for its own sake against the hypocritical and exploitative morality of the privileged classes. Though the (top-bantz) banter between Boris and Zhenya (in prison) and Dasha (in court), occasionally takes a while to warm up, the cast add some intriguing nuances to this handful of characters, not least when Boris seems likely to fall prey to a consuming passion similar to the one that bewitched Zhenya.