By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
As a second year student with deadlines ominously marching over the horizon, Sir Francis Walsingham’s vast swathes of paper (his filing cabinets are ingeniously built into the set itself) hit a little close to home. The Secret Theatre is about more than one man’s exploding in-tray, however. Anders Lustgarten’s play is allegory first, tragedy second, with an ending to match. If you prefer your allegory subtle and implied, this is not the play for you. Lustgarten is as subtle as a shoe to the face. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as much of the allegory already speaks for itself: spies, asylum seekers, martyrs, beheadings, zealots, propaganda, mass murder- all of these things are inherent to the historical source material. Parallels are therefore easily established. Nevertheless, there are moments when characters feel more like mouthpieces for the playwright than people with their own thoughts. Sir William Cecil’s line “If you tax the bankers, they’ll leave” is probably the biggest example of this, being a modern soundbyte word for word.
The strength of this play lies not in the messages of its allegory: the arguments that torture doesn’t elicit proper information, that martyrdom inspires recruitment to the cause, that unscrupulous politicians take advantage of fears over immigration, that surveillance spreads fear and mistrust, are old and surprisingly safe. The strength of this play lies more in its characters coming to such realisations. The look on Walsingham’s face, when a Catholic torture victim triumphantly declares how martyrdom boosts militant Catholicism, is far more powerful than the line itself.
A sense of relentlessness and hopelessness pervades this play, in keeping with Lustgarten’s overarching theme: that authoritarianism poisons everything it touches. The setting is highly evocative: the play’s first and current run (until 16 December) is at the beautiful Sam Wanamaker Theatre. The auditorium is small and compact and the thrust stage therefore makes the action very intimate. All of the lighting onstage is done with candles, lit and doused throughout the play, so the symbolism of “working in the shadows” is made very clear (at one point, Queen Elizabeth’s massive skirt swept across a candle flame and there was a collective intake of breath from the audience). The gilded panelling and painted ceiling of the theatre alone are worth a visit and juxtapose excellently the beauty of Elizabethan culture with the ugliness of the play’s violent politics. There is something particularly haunting about the sight of a noose when it’s swinging from a ceiling painted with cherubs. The use of tiny paper models to represent the Armada and the city of London is inspired as it is highly symbolic of the main characters’ power, as they tower over society, but also the distorting effect of paranoia upon reality.
The cast give excellent performances. Aidan McArdle as Walsingham has to convey a huge range of emotions as well as master the moments of dry and quiet humour that encapsulate the character’s shrewd and cynical observations. The only hitch in his otherwise entirely believable performance is that in Act One he moves around the stage with the vim and vigour of someone who doesn’t have so much as a common cold, let alone debilitating and untreated health conditions, random bursts of coughing aside. This hitch is gone in the second act, when the disintegration of Walsingham’s physical and psychological health is visceral and harrowing.
In the hands of an actor of lesser skill, the role of Queen Elizabeth I in this play could easily become one-dimensionally catty, but Tara Fitzgerald keeps the character as venomous as she is despairing. Tara Fitzgerald is aided by the fact that, refreshingly, the production refuses to follow Hollywood’s recent lead in sexing up history: Elizabeth’s dresses are magnificent, but the wig and white face paint are there to be authentic, not to aesthetically appeal to the viewer. All of the play’s violence serves a narrative and thematic purpose rather than simply shock value (looking at you, Game of Thrones). This gives the play a weight and maturity beyond your bread and butter thriller.
Much has been made of how unconventional this interpretation of Elizabeth I is: foul-mouthed, vulgar, self-centred and spiteful. However, no portrayal of Elizabeth in the past forty years, no matter how reverent, has omitted her famous temper and often irrational jealousy. The suggestion that Elizabeth I was actually sexually active is also not new, but used in this play for the theme of state propaganda. To the play’s credit, the portrayal of Elizabeth as foul-mouthed and violent is more of an exaggeration or an extrapolation of historical record rather than pure invention, as some reviewers of the play have suggested. The real Elizabeth did use “Jesus!” as an expletive and the story goes she once threw her shoe in Walsingham’s face (I was rather hoping to see this play out onstage, but given the number of candles it probably wasn’t a good idea). Elizabeth’s use of bad language also has motive: to gain the upper hand in her power dynamic with Walsingham through calculated degradation and humiliation. The acrimonious working relationship between the two, more toxic than any 16th century medicine, makes for the play’s best scenes.
The play’s worst scenes suffer from the flat characterisation of Lady Sidney, Walsingham’s daughter, who is two things in this play: angry and sad. This subplot is intended to show the personal cost caused by political unscrupulousness, but there’s never any sign of familial love and affection between father and daughter, meaning that the estrangement feels inevitable and therefore not much of a sacrifice. The scenes feel like they were written last minute and in a hurry, so the play and the ending suffers.
This play can be found in digital and hard copy on Amazon and I recommend it to anyone interested in history, the War on Terror, current affairs and good old-fashioned tragedy. It does not require prior knowledge of the period to enjoy, though if you are knowledgeable of the historical figures and their lives, there is much irony and nuance to be spotted and appreciated, like little Easter eggs. Licence may have been taken with the events, but historical purists (such as myself) can appreciate this play far more than they can most in a lot of historical writing.