The Secret Theatre review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘an engrossing spy thriller’
Anders Lustgarten’s new play The Secret Theatre inhabits the same historical moment as Schiller’s Mary Stuart – the late 1580s, with Elizabeth on the throne, her Catholic rival behind bars, and England aflame with terror at the imminent Spanish invasion.
Lustgarten eschews the regal wrangling of court, however, diving instead into the murky underworld of Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. This is James Bond in doublets and jerkins. A 16th-century Le Carre novel.
Over a swift-moving two hours, Lustgarten whisks us through several key historical events – the infamous Babington plot, the execution of Mary, the interrogation of propagandist poet Robert Southwell, the defeat of the Spanish Armada – with Walsingham as the twitching spider at the centre of a vast, international web. He covertly battles dissident Jesuits with one hand, and appeases his savage, stingy Queen with the other.
Lustgarten’s plotting is superb, intricate yet accessible with a smart twist at the conclusion, and his dialogue is peppered with jaunty humour and barnstorming speeches. But he’s too often guilty of telling rather than showing, and of cramming exposition into every exchange. A personal plot, involving the estrangement of Walsingham’s daughter, is also badly underwritten.
The play pushes for a contemporary relevance that doesn’t quite fly. In its foregrounding of Elizabeth’s rocky relationship with Catholic Europe, it attempts to reveal a wry parallel with Brexit. In its portrayal of a society wracked with fear and suspicion, it tries to reflect modern day anti-immigrant sentiment. And in its piercing examination of Walsingham’s espionage operation, it attempts to conjure up an Elizabethan equivalent of today’s mass governmental surveillance, a Tudor GCHQ.
It’s all a bit clumsy, a bit on the nose, and it weighs the play down. Lustgarten’s idea – using the late 1500s as a metaphor for today – is sound. His execution is not.
Still, it’s a riveting, rollercoaster ride nonetheless, brimming with intrigue and excitement. Matthew Dunster’s fast-flowing production lends proceedings a blackly thrilling intimacy – rarely has the warm candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse thrown such forbidding shadows. The hanging of Babington, the beheading of Mary, and the torture of Southwell are all staged with grippingly graphic style.
Aidan McArdle heads an impressive cast with a fine central performance as Walsingham, convincingly evoking a man of darting, daring intelligence – Sherlock Holmes crossed with George Smiley, wearing a ruff. Tara Fitzgerald, pale-faced and puffed-up throughout as Elizabeth, captures something of the regent’s caustic charisma, and Ian Redford finds an avuncular gruffness as Elizabeth’s old advisor Sir William Cecil.
It’s thanks to these performances, and to Dunster’s delectably dark direction that Lustgarten’s play doesn’t sink under its own awkward allegories, emerging instead as an engrossing Elizabethan spy thriller.