Theatre O goodness – espionage and extremism in the The Secret Agent

Theatre O goodness – espionage and extremism in the The Secret Agent

For those unfamiliar with theatre O’s work, their productions may come of something as a shock. Certainly this was case for me, settling down to their new adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, expecting a rather heavy play on espionage, anarchism and late 19th-century London politics. But from the very first scenes, with the five clown-faced characters performing their strange, slow-motion dance and the intermittent bursts of song, theatre O make it clear that we are in for something very different.

This is one highly stylized play, drawing on cabaret, mime, puppetry. Indeed, the influences are myriad – the tortured, angular poses of the actors recalling 1920s German cinema nightmares (Nosferatu, Dr. Kaligari), while silhouettes thrown huge onto the stage walls morph into the monolithic figures of Soviet propaganda. All this makes, of course, for sumptuous viewing, but the company elevates its stylistic tics into a fantastic exploration of the story’s deeper themes: ideology, extremism, destruction and madness. The play articulates extraordinarily the way in which even the most surreally extreme ideologies are yet entirely real to their disciples.

In one particularly skilful scene, Stevie, brother-in-law to the eponymous secret agent, delivers a frantic monologue on the drama and apocalypse within the characters’ minds and the outer restraint with which they interact – all whilst constructing a horse in the middle of the stage, from nothing but furniture. The effect is mesmerising – like watching the illusions of a magician – but more than this, it is a glimpse into what it is like to suspend belief: to view the world, as do the play’s extremists, through a certain imaginative eye.

Such scenes toy with the dichotomy of theatre itself: at once playful – grown adults dressing themselves up for an elaborate game of make-believe – and utterly serious. If the production’s playfulness (its comic use of dolls, the doors and windows scrawled childlike onto the stage to “make a house”) is exhilarating, it also risks turning the action we witness into little more than a game. It is this dilemma that the play raises again and again, in probing its central and disturbing idea: that change is brought with extremism alone.

More than once, the audience is goaded for its passivity – an anarchist terrorist wonders how long anyone will even remember the events they have just watched unfold. Nor is it for nothing that the play ends with the characters dancing, floating – (being sucked?) – back to the very positions from which they started. The play posits theatre as a magical sanctum (evidenced by the smoky, perfumed air even as the audience files in) with no connection to the external world – and considers the kind of acts that could rip their reverberations through to that outside.

The Secret Agent explores daring ideas with daring methods. Rather than actors, theatre O lists “Deviser/Performers”, who develop the play in unison, with no single scriptwriter. A risky strategy – and not all their risks pay off: an audience participation scene seemed to mar the fabulous, pantomimic space they had created, as each audience member brought their own subtle, realistic gestures of self-consciousness to the stage. But by and large the play dazzled and left me hungering to see the company’s previous works – Delirium, Astronaut, 3 Dark Tales. theatre O has staked itself away from the theatrical mainstream and, in so doing, yielded bloody good results.


The Secret Agent is touring the UK until the end of this month. More details and ticket bookings are available here.

PHOTO/ Wikipedia Commons

Preview: The Trial

Preview: The Trial

the trial

Hypnotist Theatre’s production of The Trial will be short on costumes, props, scenery, and space—and that’s all to good effect. The play is Steve Berkoff’s adaptation of the Kafka novel of the same name, so you know you’ll be in for a bit of a strange ride through the corridors of beuracracy and power. The cast will be taking on multiple roles each, with the notable exception of the lead: the protagonist Josef K, who is on trial, is the only character played by one actor throughout the play, which provides a nice bit of solid ground for the audience to latch onto.

The rest of the cast won’t just be playing different characters; they’ll also function like props and scenery, filling in the otherwise (mostly) empty stage with their bodies. They fluidly shift between these different roles even within individual scenes.

Relying on the cast for all these tasks is an interesting, potentially risky move. But the actors are all strong and have plenty of energy, and this minimalist flexibility allows for very dynamic blocking. Allowing the cast to constantly move around is a crucial directorial choice, since the play is staged in-the-round; no section of the audience gets ignored thanks to these shifts.

The Burton Taylor Studio will serve this production well. A key aspect of the play is drawing the audience in, making them complicit in the play’s happenings. The semi-claustrophobic, dark space of the BT will surely add to this atmosphere. The intimacy of the space will ensure the audience has nowhere to hide, which is key for this play: its goal is to put the audience on trial along with Josef K.

I’m looking forward to facing my trial along with Josef K when the production begins its run on May 8th.


The Trial will run from 7th-11th May (Tuesday-Saturday of 3rd Week) in the Burton Taylor Studio, starting at 7.30pm each evening. Tickets are available from £5.

 PHOTO / Sam Ward

Still relevant After Sophocles?

Still relevant After Sophocles?

This version moves Sophocles’ Antigone from Ancient Greece to the 2011 London riots. Antigone, now ‘Anne’, is consumed by a desire to bury her disgraced brother, Polynices – now ‘Pol’.  The play is difficult to translate into the modern day.  For starters, the main issue of the play is that the king of Thebes, Creon, doesn’t want anyone to honour his son Polynices by burying him because he died a traitor attacking his own city.  This is shoehorned into a modern setting by turning Pol into a policeman who changed sides and fought with rioters against the establishment.  This works until we get to the burial issue; the audience can suspend its disbelief up to a point, and imagine that London is ruled by the tyrannical Creon, who just decided to make an example of Polynices and that his decree is law.

However, the image of a dead body being left on a pavement in Tottenham is pretty incongruous: Jimmy Savile stayed buried even though they took away his gravestone. Times have changed, and an adaptation can’t always fit the nuances of one society into another.  But, as with any adaptation, there is only so much to be gained by comparing it to the original.

The script is written by Royal Court Young Writer, Jingan Young, and is only an hour long.  The production company, Rough Hewn, wants to explore the relationships between the characters more than Sophocles or Young did, so they’re bulking it up with some devised scenes which I saw them improvising this weekend.  Imagining how Haemon, Antigone’s lover, would react to her effectively sentencing herself to death in order to defy her stepfather and bury her brother is difficult at the best of times, but without the established moral code of the time to dip into, the actors have to skirt around topics using our modern language of feelings.  I was shown only improvisation, and would have liked to have seen some of the scripted scenes, but time is tight: they are performing in 6th week. Ismene and Chorus

A lot needs to be polished in two weeks, but there is clear talent within the company and imagination behind the chorus.  The Greek chorus become rioters in the modern version, but transform into reporters at one point and commuters at another.  I saw them rehearsing separately from the main characters, but can imagine their presence on stage would make the play retain an interesting classical element.  Having a group of seven constantly on stage reacting to the action, often in unison, seems tacky and clunky by modern standards, but it’s a challenge which good direction should rise to, and might add an unusual dynamic to otherwise intimate scenes.  This adaptation has had to lose some of the moral quandaries which were so engaging for Sophocles’ audience, but could equally become stronger as a production because of its new setting.  The riots are recognisable and controversial, and if this is drawn upon in the right way, the setting should add more than it takes away in terms of social questions.  The cast are competent and assured, and the direction meticulous.

Antigone shows clear promise, but, of the the finished product, I couldn’t tell you much more than that.


Antigone after Sophocles opens on the 20th of February (Wednesday of 6th Week) in the O’Reilly Theatre, Keble.  Tickets are available from £6.

PHOTO/ Mihail Hurmuzov

Remakes: The good, the bad and the unnecessary

Even before David Fincher’s The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo came out, there were cries of outrage from cinemagoers everywhere. The Swedish version had already been made, what was the point of ruining it with an American version? It was going to have none of the original feel or the flair, and by the fact that it was American, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth was going to be a shadow of Noomi Rapace’s. Obviously. When the film did eventually come out, the cries died down, but not entirely. And this is not an isolated case; the fact is that for some reason, remakes of foreign films simply do not sit well with a lot of people.

Remaking a film, foreign or otherwise, is a lot like adapting a book for the big screen. The plot and the characters are all there, the vision and the inspiration have already been created by somebody else. It then falls to the director to create it as a work of art; to visualize it and turn it into a film. When this is done with something like Lord Of The Rings, everybody is happy; they can’t wait to see Aragorn fighting the Nazgul, or Frodo crawling through Shelob’s lair. You could argue that the excitement stems from the fact that the original material is brilliant, and you would be absolutely correct, but then why on Earth are we allowing four Twilight films? The opposite is in fact usually true of remakes. The greater the original, the stronger the objection to anyone even thinking about touching it. The talk is always of ruining a masterpiece, but people never seem to imagine an attempt that would be better, or different or fresh. That would surely be inconceivable.

While not being able to read the subtitles is never a valid excuse for not liking a film, there are certainly disadvantages of having to constantly read them. Often, the best of the acting, the moments that define a film can come from the way that a certain character speaks or says things: sarcasm for example depends entirely on the tone of voice. When you watch foreign films in languages that are completely alien to you, following these vocal cues is difficult, and can detract from great viewing. The same can be said for the culture difference. For an audience to connect entirely with a film, they may need to understand a culture to realise why characters are driven the way they are. If you fail on this front, you can leave an audience confused and uninterested. And there are times where a film, its material and its story is simply too good to pass up: Scorsese won an Oscar with good reason for The Departed.

There is nobody who can say that they have never watched a film and come out with the words ‘I would have done that bit differently’. Everybody reads a book in a unique way, they imagine a scene to play out with a tone that only they understand, and they want that to be translated onto the big screen. Directors are no different, except for the fact that they have the power to make those changes. We shouldn’t begrudge them their desire to do just that.

By Prithu Banerjee

That Magic Lantern: Dickensian films

7 February 1812. In the seaside district of Landport, Charles John Huffam Dickens is born to an unremarkable Victorian family, the second of eight children. He will not only change the face of literature, but of all the arts. Two hundred years later, he is still one of the greatest and most recognisable names in the world. But how has film contributed to the spread of Dickens mania?

Even in the nineteenth century, the works of Dickens were superbly adaptable. After all, he himself was many things: author, journalist, husband, father, social reformer and boot-blacker, to name but a few of his faces. This was a man whose voice spoke not for one, but for many; a man whose protean personality seeped into every word and every page. His serial publications were routinely used in stage adaptations, sometimes before they were even finished — and without the help of a fully developed Copyright Act, which only came into force in 1842, he was forced to let well-meaning rascals run amok with his ideas, making not a shilling from their efforts. Doubtless he wouldn’t have liked The Pirate Bay. Nonetheless, my instinct tells me he would have been delighted to see his works reproduced in the ultimate modern medium: film.

The Victorians are well-known for their love of spectacle and image. In the pre-cinema days they used smoke and mirrors to create phantasmagoria and light shows. The idea of ‘film’ was understood primarily in the context of the Lanterna Magica, or magic lantern. This nifty bit of hardware is thought to have been developed by Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens in the seventeenth century. It was used to project a single image on a slide using light — usually from a candle — and a concave mirror. The quality of the image improved progressively with the invention of stronger light sources like the Argand lamp and the limelight. Mass production of slides was enabled by the copper plate process, which allowed the outline of an image to be printed directly onto the glass. Previously they had been hand-drawn. The first ‘motion pictures’ only appeared in 1879, when Eadweard Muybridge developed the zoopraxiscope. This worked like a flip book to create the impression of motion using rotating glass disks. By the end of the Victorian era, one of the first ever films, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon (1894), had been released by the Lumière brothers using the new cinématographe, and the world’s first cinéma had been opened in La Ciotat. By the time the first cinematographic screenings took place in Paris, however, Charles Dickens had been dead for over 20 years.

Living in the city, Dickens would have been constantly bombarded by the Victorian fascination with image; he referred to London as ‘that magic lantern’. His novella The Haunted Man (1848) was used in a lantern show, as was A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens gave many public readings for which he edited his own stories, highlighting the most pivotal scenes, which were then used in lithographic lantern slides. After his death, adaptations of his novels filled the world of film. Around a hundred were made across the world during the silent era alone. The first full-length Dickensian feature film, David Copperfield, was produced in 1913, closely followed by Barnaby Rudge (1915), which has sadly been lost. The last silent adaptation was A Tale of Two Cities (1925).

Two centuries later, Britain is still in love with the inimitable Boz. From Carrey to Disney, Kingsley to Polanski, everyone seems to have dipped into Dickens — and this year, Helena Bonham Carter will fill the role of notoriously nutty Miss Havisham for BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Let’s hope she meets our expectations.

Based on the book…

Adaptations to stage are always an interesting endeavour. If they’re from films, you lack the multiple locations, the special effects, the cast of thousands; from books, there are just so many details – from inner monologues to vast descriptions – to be dealt with.

Books can offer the most challenge, or at least the more common one. Once you’ve selected your novel, where to begin? Naturally you can’t put everything in; unless you’re dealing with something rather short, books will always have more luxury to spread out and spend their time on whatever they like. Perhaps Shakespeare could write plays that went on for many hours, but these days only the very deserving are allowed past roughly two and a half. Les Misérables is over three hours because it is an epic tale, well adapted and using songs and staging to convey the emotions of a book spanning several decades and over a thousand pages; Gone with the Wind, the musical flop of a few years ago, quickly became infamous for the way it rushed to include everything with nothing making any impact at all beyond hilarity. (By the way, yes, there was a Gone with the Wind musical, I am not making this up. Two, apparently.)

Funnily enough, musicals (of both epic and flop varieties) have become more popular for adaptations. Perhaps this is due to high-profile successes such as the aforementioned Les Mis, or Phantom of the Opera; it might also be thanks to the growing popularity of musicals in general. Analyse any way you wish. However, regarding the latter, it should be added that adaptations are increasingly popular from the producers’ perspective anyway thanks to their ready-made audiences. (See: Hollywood)

There are the old favourites, of course. A Christmas Carol receives, on average, between two and three new adaptations a year by a very conservative estimate. Key here is the fact that while everybody knows the story, there is always a market for it at a certain time of year when people are in the mood for some theatre. (As well as it being a timeless tale of redemption combining humour with frights and some glorious character development, but that’s beside the point.) The nature of theatre means that the popular ones can potentially keep being reinvented and restaged – a reason why some prefer the stability of a single film adaptation.

Besides, being an adaptation does not mean you can’t be respected: Woman in Black is basically the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on stage; The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the West End. Like film, there are failures, and there are glorious successes.

But obviously this isn’t film. Adaptations invite all kinds of tricks of staging, in order to compensate for its differences and also to highlight them. No, in the musical adaptation of Lord of the Rings, they can’t use the power of cinema to make Bilbo disappear – and yet they manage it anyway. Somehow it has even more impact when it’s happening right in front of you. The Woman in Black is terrifying because, for all the simplicity of its staging, it makes you believe in what’s happening; it makes you as terrified as its main character by already making you believe in the simplest props before drawing you in further.

Naturally, some genres can be more difficult than others. Fantasy, for example, while popular, is a particularly awkward one, although one which can therefore result in the best effects. Productions of the Narnia books have to answer the question of how to have all those talking animals without looking silly, how to tackle the grand battles and the transition between statues and living things. Having now seen The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe twice now – once in London, once as a local amateur production – I can safely say that so far they have always risen to the occasion. Meanwhile, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials might have seemed something impossible to stage, and yet the puppet-aided performance of roughly five years ago was highly commended, and a similar approach for Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is about to go on tour. In both cases, animals were needed for major parts of the plot, making them impossible to cut out but also to control on such a scale. Yet the challenge was met and produced something amazing into the bargain.

Effects aren’t everything though: there is also the matter of the writing. As previously mentioned, you have to navigate all those long descriptions and inner monologues, establish relationships and characters without the ability to flick back to check them, and condense it all into one sitting. Take a production of Pride and Prejudice: how to include all of that glorious narrative? The version I saw simply divided it amongst the characters, which on the one hand made sure it remained, but on the other could be jarring for characterisation. Then there’s the matter of converting sentences to scenes. Yes, in a play, rather than “he walked over there” he can walk while saying something else, but also instead of “they played a game” they have to actually play the game or remove that detail altogether. (Please ignore that my example would appear to be a very boring book indeed.) Elsewhere, how to avoid all of those scene changes? How to compensate when the book demands hundreds of extras? How to make the characters real? Given that a great deal of your audience knows the ending, how do you deal with that? Play up the inevitability with plenty of foreshadowing or just play it straight? To start listing examples of each and every approach for all of these here would probably go on forever, because one of the wonderful things is how there are so many approaches. Just one, Christmas Carol, has received pretty much everything right down to a one-man show.

Adaptations might seem an easy option, and they do have their advantages regarding attendance, but they are not without their own challenges. However, when done well, not only do they make for a good show, they are also capable of producing innovation and something spectacular, for the benefit of the stage as a whole. Truly, there is nothing quite like a challenge.
PHOTO/William Hoiles