Review: Scenes for Survival - Aleister Crowley Summons the Devil, National Theatre of Scotland

In Sonnet 58, Shakespeare made thoughts on ‘waiting’ apparent: “I am to wait, though waiting so be hell”; having to wait around can be utterly torturous. However, a new play released as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival takes it a step further: in Aleister Crowley Summons the Devil, waiting for ‘hell’ itself can also be hell.

Its 1900 A.D., and Aleister Crowley (Gordon Houston) is doing the impossible: he’s conjuring demons… well, trying to, at least. Hidden away in Boleskin House on Loch Ness, he’s waiting for four weeks to see if his invocation proves fruitful. But as the time passes and the weight of boredom and loneliness weighs on the young sorcerer, a scary thought enters his mind: what if it doesn’t actually work? What if it all has been for nothing?

The play’s central conceit of waiting for the black magic spell to take effect becomes something of veiled metaphor for self-isolating during the lockdown: as Aleister laments during one low moment, “what if it’s all rubbish?” and “every day is just the same, every day is just… me”. His lonely, bored existence is a mirror of the viewer’s, reflecting our own coronavirus-induced anxieties back to us: what if locking down does nothing? What if it doesn’t help? What if all this waiting and sacrifice amounts to nothing?  

Of course, the ironic twist is that Crowley wants the worst case scenario to happen, eager to utilise the forces of Hell for dark machinations, but his unease from having to wait is still the same; no matter which way you look at it, waiting sucks. Liptrott’s direction reinforces this insightful commentary, using long, pause-filled shots to impart a sense of elongated delay. Aleister’s wait is really quite palpable throughout, as impactful on the viewer as it is on the sorcerer.

Moreover, writer Denise Mina’s language is cleverly layered, creating a deft, anachronistic balance between Renaissance turn-of-phrase and modern sensibilities; it’s as if Faustus had to wait 28 working days for Mephistopheles to arrive. Houston is effective at capturing this oxymoronic nature, even if we sometimes lose what he’s saying in the most perfervid moments. His passion sometimes means diction is lost, although the sincerity of his performance is very much there.

Aleister Crowley Summons the Devil is an incredibly intelligent piece of theatre, even if the ending feels a little sudden and rushed (I wasn’t completely sure at first that it WAS the ending…!). Liptrott and Mina have constructed a powerful commentary on being locked-down, that speaks to both our contemporary moment and the idea of waiting in general. It’s not a totally ‘fun’ watch, but its thoughtful enough to be worth a viewing.

Aleister Crowley Summons the Devil is playing as part of the Scenes for Survival. For more information, visit