Playwright Dawn King follows her brilliant, unexpected dystopian hit ‘Foxfinder’ with another fascinating idea: a play about a spy, Justine (Gráinne Keenan), that is in itself jumbled like a code, with a doubled cast and a non-linear structure that’s paced expertly by director Blanche McIntyre.
Government surveillance has become big big news since King sat down to write ‘Ciphers’, and there is something deeply troubling in the behaviour of her office-bound spies, employed by an unnamed British agency. Shereen Martin is blandly sinister as Justine’s smooth, apparently unaccountable supervisor Sunita, who calmly plays god with the life of a reluctant source – Ronny Jhutti’s community worker Kareem – and, later, with Justine herself.
Really, though, ‘Ciphers’ is a play about loneliness: Justine is a heartbreakingly empty woman, a blank slate who seems to have nothing in her life beyond her remarkable grasp of languages and her affair with artist Kai (Jhutti). In one temporal strand we follow her troubled career, as she attempts to give herself over to the spying agency; in another, her sister Kerry (also Keenan) is furiously trying to persuade an impassive, heartless Sunita to tell her what has become of Justine.
It’s a smart examination of urban isolation, given a thriller’s chassis, a super-slick structure and a splendid cast. But it left me unsatisfied. For all the impressive depths Keenan finds in the role, I never really felt I knew Justine beyond feeling sorry for her. The cleverness of the medium feels more important than the humanity of the story, and at times the characters seem like ciphers a little too literally. It ends not with the emotional payoff you feel Justine probably deserves, but rather the quiet satisfaction of a puzzle solved.
By Andrzej Lukowski