London, 1896. Officials are spoiling for a fight with a dithering cell of anarchists. But they have no pretext for their fight – no bomb. So they hire an impoverished immigrant to plant one. He is The Secret Agent.
Theatre O’s production – inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel (published in 1907) – draws parallels between then and now. It is broadly implied that this is then and then is now and our rulers are as devious and paranoid as the ones we meet on stage. One late Victorian schemer even speaks in contemporary parlance: he wants to “extradite” suspected criminals, withhold “asylum” and banish “preachers of hate”.
This piece was devised by the cast alongside playwright Matthew Hurt. Dialogue is clever, caustic and florid. The plot is fractured and disorienting.
Characters are clowns with white faces, who sing and express themselves in stylised movements which are sometimes striking and often over-emphatic. There are dabs of Brechtian satire, vaudeville and melodrama. The tone is essentially bathetic.
George Potts is a good Adolf Verloc – the eponymous “secret agent” – a bumbling loser who is surprisingly cruel. Leander Deeny cringes well as Stevie, the dogsbody “half-wit” who gets caught up in a creep’s game. And Deeny is even better as Vladimir, Verloc’s handler: he is maverick, suave and completely deranged.
One of the best – and worst – scenes of the play involves six members of the audience on stage as part of a “meeting” between spy and spymaster. Deeny conducts proceedings with aplomb and there is an innate fascination to almost any moment that involves the unrehearsed public because they might (you hope) misbehave. The intention is to make the story feel immediate, to bring us in – literally. Instead, it dislocates everyone, including the actors, from the real task at hand.
Indeed, where Conrad builds tension, Theatre O diffuses the little there is with clever japes. For all the emotive ingredients – treachery, misery, exploded limbs – their show lacks heart and bite. It feels light. You titter and wince for 80 minutes and then you leave thinking, that wasn’t bad. But you won’t dream about it.
www.youngvic.org, runs to September 21, then tours