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