Based on Joseph Conrad’s excellent but densely written book, this dynamic stage version of ‘The Secret Agent’ by theatre O distils the novel into 90 fast moving minutes. Set in 1880s London and written by Conrad over a hundred years ago, the terrorist theme makes it oddly contemporary. Apparently it was one of three novels most cited by American media after 9-11.
The story is of Mr Verloc and his family, and what happens when their lives explosively collide with an anarchist cell and a sinister Russian called Vladimir. With clown white faces and high domed bowler hats, the four cast members (who take on various different roles) move with grace through a light spattered, chair filled space. Some moments are tightly choreographed, and all four actors are physically brilliant.
Leander Deeny is especially good as Stevie, a “half wit” with a severe stammer and a magical mind, who becomes the victim of an attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. His distress when his ailing mother is taken away to an alms house is powerfully expressed, and he effectively reveals the difference between what he thinks and what he’s able to say. Later Carolina Valdes (as his sister Winnie) mimics drowning in a shaft of blue-grey light with aplomb.
Always lovely to look at, the play is also a potently political one and tackles espionage, terrorism and exploitation. It explores the power of fear, and suggests fear is a sort of freedom that the public needs. It also portrays, and sends up, radical movements that are all talk and no action. It shows corruption running through the veins of “this septic isle”, and shows how inertia can implicate us in deadly events.
Some intricacies of the book are lost – we never learn that Verloc and his wife run a seedy porn and bric-a-brac shop, for example – but overall it sticks faithfully to the structure of the novel, moving forward and back through time. The play is energetic and absorbing throughout, and mixes a healthy dose of dark humour with human tragedy and moral decrepitude. Definitely worth a watch.
‘The Secret Agent’ plays at the Young Vic until 21 September. Tickets start at £10.50. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.