Writer: Joseph Conrad
Adaptor: Matthew Hurt and company
Director: Joseph Alford
Reviewer: Anna Ambelez
Theatre O’s devised adaptation is based, as opposed to inspired by, on Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ written in 1907. Espionage, anarchy, terrorism and betrayal, are some ingredients of Conrad’s novel.This highly-acclaimed political thriller abounds with passion and intrigue, little of which is reflected in this production. It is no mean task to even attempt to translate this novel to the stage. A different title might not lead one to expect so much. Joseph Alford along with Carolina Valdes are co-artistic directors of Theatre O and their Lecoq training heavily influences this production.
Set in 1896, the incompetent, bumbling spy, Adolf Verloc (George Potts) has to blow up Greenwich Observatory to ‘prove’ his loyalty to Russia. It all goes horribly wrong. A very stylized opening introduces the characters in an intriguing, amusing fashion, like a flower opening its petals up to face the day. It continues in an almost vaudeville, melodramatic style, playing much for laughs.
Adapted by Matthew Hurt and devised by the cast and director, the text is clever and florid. Stevie’s (Leander Deeny) speech on circles is almost poetical and Inspector Heat’s (Dennis Hardman) description of the collection of a body is nearer prose, but neither really carry the story forward.
There are obvious parallels to be drawn between 1896 and contemporary events; how devious and paranoid our rulers are, who often employ methods they accuse their enemies of using. The storyline and themes, while extremely powerful and familiar, lacked potency. To illustrate a horrific event one scene involves six audience members on stage eating biscuits, this resulted in a comic response thereby defeating the object.
This is a production of two parts: the two-dimensional characters which open the piece are difficult to accept as serious in later scenes. While the ability of the cast is not in question, their talents are somewhat lost in a devised ‘ Conrad caper’. Leander Deeny excels doubling up as the simple-minded victim Stevie and the deranged maverick Russian, Vladimir. Helena Lymbery delivers two extraordinary characters as Winnie’s (Carolina Valdes) mother and The Professor.
There is a definite visual overload at the expense of the essential content, ie the story. The choreography ( Eva Vilamitjana) is very polished and effective, sometimes even overshadowing the content. The very atmospheric lighting (Anna Watson) and sound (Gareth Fry) often create more drama than the action, the drowning scene is extremely effective. The use of video (Simon Daw and Paddy Molloy) and the set greatly contribute to the atmosphere.
The plot is fractured, disorienting and lacks fluidity. The serious content is swamped by a plethora of movement to the point of being over indulgent. At the end the cast all return to the opening tableau, closing up, back into their box. On a positive note there are many good creative scenes, visual delights and strong acting. While one of Theatre O’s aims is to present dark subjects in a playful way, The Secret Agent seems to be reduced to just a vehicle to display the cleverness of the company.