Thursday, 23 November 2017

Theatre review: The Secret Theatre

Anders Lustgarten doesn’t seem an obvious fit for the Swanamaker, but in comparing present-day paranoia and manipulation by politicians to the intrigue of Elizabeth I’s court he’s found a subject that doesn’t just suit the time the venue recreates, but also feels at home in the shadows of the candlelit playhouse. The Secret Theatre is about the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Aidan McArdle,) who responded to the numerous assassination plots against her by creating the first surveillance state. He lives surrounded by paper, collecting files on Catholic threats and potential traitors, planting spies everywhere he can - often to spy on each other – and seeding an atmosphere of suspicion that seeps into every corner of the country. His plan is that his secret service should be the world’s worst-kept secret: You don’t actually need to watch everyone if everyone thinks they’re being watched.

Walsingham is good at building up power but has no ability to make himself liked – even Queen Elizabeth (Tara Fitzgerald,) whose life he’s saved numerous times, openly despises him.

This is only partly because of his doing the dirty jobs nobody else wants to, and partly because he’s rather charmless and prone to winding people up: He arranges for his daughter to marry Sir Philip Sidney (Sam Marks) because the two genuinely do seem to love each other, but the Queen sees it as an impertinent grab for respectability from a man descended from commoners. His own success at keeping threats away has made her question whether they’re even real, and cut Walsingham’s budget. With a terminal case of Period Drama Cough meaning he’s not got long to put his security measures in place, he ends up using his talent for dissembling against the Queen herself, faking an assassination attempt in front of her to convince her she’s at risk.

Having learned his trade from his predecessor William Cecil (Ian Redford, superficially past it but with flashes of slyness suggesting all is not as it seems,) Walsingham is now passing it on to his servant (Colin Ryan,) setting up the play’s suggestion that his vision of a surveillance state is how England has operated ever since. You don’t really go to Anders Lustgarten for subtlety but the play’s tendency towards dark comedy means the blunt parallels with the present day largely get laughs. The other thing Matthew Dunster’s production draws well out of the play is the way it works as a thriller: There’s scenes of Tudor torture and, worse, Tudor medicine, but the most menacing thing in the evening is Walsingham slowly putting out all the candles once he’s got someone where he wants them.

I did wonder at the cast’s uneven gender split – is it the Swanamaker itself that's exempt from Emma Rice’s rule on that or does Dunster as Associate Director get special dispensation? At least the two female cast members get plenty to get their teeth into. Cassie Layton brings Walsingham’s unpopularity right back home as his daughter Frances, who loses her husband to a war her father started and never forgives him for it; her fortunes presumably didn’t get much better after the events of the play, as the last we hear of her she’s planning a second marriage, to the Earl of Essex. And then there’s Elizabeth herself: There’s no question that the popular image of her was largely constructed as propaganda, but there’s always been rumours of just how far she really differed from the Virgin Queen of legend. Lustgarten happily takes hold of the most extreme gossip about her, showing her foul-mouthed, violent and possibly having a kinky affair with Walsingham’s most sadistic torturer (Abraham Popoola.) What’s great about Fitzgerald’s performance is the way she plays all this while making her feel incredibly brittle at the same time.

Jon Bausor’s designs play with the Swanamaker stage, turning the doors into endless filing cabinets filled with incriminating evidence, fitting panels over the musicians’ gallery with a window in the middle to spy on those below, and using candlelit dioramas to bring in scenes from the world outside Walsingham’s shadowy corridors. The structure of the play itself is sometimes awkward in its attempt to show the breadth of Walsingham’s influence, with the amount of minor characters given their own scenes putting strain on the small cast’s doubling (at one point Marks seems to have turned up to his own funeral) but I was surprised at how quickly the 70-minute first act went by: Despite a plot that snakes off in a number of directions the production maintains its thriller-like focus and pace.

The Secret Theatre by Anders Lustgarten is booking in repertory until the 16th of December at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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