Who is spying on whom and why? What is justifiable in the name of national security? These questions rumble on in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair and in Ciphers, Dawn King constructs an ingenious, intimate spy thriller to explore such themes. It is pleasingly cool and compelling and starts well, but, like many a mission, runs into some potholes.
Justine, the quiet, elusive centre of the play, is first seen being recruited to MI5 by chilly boss Sunita (Shereen Martin). But before long, she has died in mysterious circumstances. Twin narratives weave together her story and that of her grief-stricken sister Kerry, who doesn’t believe the official version of events and tries to piece together what happened. The nimble interplay between the two plots, coupled with the fact that four actors play eight parts, means that you keep having to reassess who is who and who knows what, neatly augmenting the uncertainty. It’s not clear who can be trusted, not only in Justine’s profession, but also in her private life, in which she embarks on an affair with a married artist (Ronny Jhutti).
The themes are fascinating, but the play itself encounters several problems as it progresses. The plot becomes shaky and overly blunt – it’s hard to believe Justine’s career path, for example. Meanwhile some scenes and characters stray into cliché – do spy chiefs really talk to their recruits like that? – or rather strained metaphor, with Justine getting screwed in more ways than one. The play tries to cover too much ground to make its point about exploitation, rather than pursuing one story in detail.
But it is still a grippng watch: King creates suspense skilfully, as does Blanche McIntyre’s svelte, stylish staging (a co-production between the Bush, Out of Joint and Exeter Northcott Theatre). James Perkins’ set is dominated by huge blank screens, which slip to and fro across the stage and are both practical and symbolic. They enable characters to disappear suddenly, they emphasise the drama’s themes of secrecy and deception and they playfully recall the slicing screen changes in the popular television drama Spooks.
There is deft work from the cast, required, spy-like, to change character in an instant. And at the heart of it, Gráinne Keenan is excellent, playing both the enigmatic Justine and Kerry, increasingly distressed as she realises just how little she knew her sister.