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Compelling but Confusing: The Secret Agent at the Young Vic

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

A stylish, energetic production, Theatre O’s The Secret Agent at the Young Vic is resonant with topical yet timeless questions on political liberties and national security. Themes of exploitation and nihilism contribute to a growing claustrophobia as the show unfolds.

This adaptation from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel is a story about a family: Mr Verloc, a spy, his wife Winnie, her mother, and her brother Stevie. Verloc is a revolutionary, or at least so his anarchist friends Ossipon and The Professor think. George Potts plays a Verloc with a generous dollop of Oliver Hardy about him, all bowler hat and music-hall songs.

In fact Verloc is an agent for Mr Vladimir at the Embassy, employed to sow distrust among the populace about those who might dare disrupt the status quo. Verloc and his machinations are known to the British police also. He is an insect caught in a web, an insect who all this time thought he was the spider. Mr Vladimir, impatient with Verloc’s uselessness, demands that he go from an informant to an agent. Verloc must take drastic action which will strike real fear in the hearts of people, fear that will result in the sacrifice of liberty for a sense of safety. He must provoke his revolutionary friends into a desperate measure, a startling outrage that will be a political symbol. Verloc must bomb time.

Mad, you say? Indeed, for Mr Vladimir’s entire aim is to use the destructive force of the truly incomprehensible to shock people into accepting repressive legislation designed for their protection. “Madness alone is truly terrifying.” But the bomb, though symbolic, really does go off and its result rips through the lives of the characters in a way that shifts the story from the bureaucratic absurdities of politics to the surreal internal oppressiveness of the psyche.

Leander Deeny delivers a magnetic performance as Vladimir at the Embassy. Armed with a razor-sharp, calculating wit, he moves about the stage with an aristocratic insouciance that hovers on the edge of madness. He also plays Winnie Verloc’s dependent younger brother Stevie, whose devotion to his sister forms the emotional heart of the production.

Verloc’s mother is portrayed with exquisitely guilt-inducing care by Helena Lymbery. She also plays The Professor, supplier of explosives and general paranoid anarchist. Dennis Herdman plays Ossipon, anarchist with a public schoolboy accent, and Inspector Heat, menace to anarchists everywhere.

Winnie Verloc is played by Theatre O co-director Carolina Valdés. She comes into her own late in the play, where in a dance with Verloc she confronts the all-encompassing weight of a sorrow so intense that it blots out every other part of herself. It is in these latter parts of the play, where the emphasis shifts to the cerebral, that Vladimir’s words take on new meaning. The building intensity of light and sound throughout the production change the atmosphere from the political to the psychological.

The collaborative nature of Theatre O makes a beautifully crafted production, with the design, sound, and movement aesthetics blending to create an expressive space. The styling of this adaptation gives it a strong Kafkaesque flavour. But it’s impossible to tell whether the disjointed nature of the show is a deliberate invocation of the ultimate futility of nihilistic anarchy or whether it’s just confusingly structured.

Conrad’s novel is inspired by a true story: in 1894, an anarchist with the fantastical name Martial Bourdin really did try to bomb the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and died in the attempt, the bomb exploding on a path near the bottom of the hill. There is no answer to the question why, except perhaps a resonance of Vladimir’s words: madness alone is truly terrifying.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts, 9 September 2013.