Theatre O’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel ‘The Secret Agent’ starts with an explosion. In slow motion, the actors cascade about the stage having been thrown by an invisible force. Incidentally, this is also a little like what happens to the plot in this devised adaptation: the bits of Conrad are there, but they have been splintered, fragmented and chucked about the place.
After a poor reception at the Edinburgh Fringe, Theatre O have worked on drastically tightening up the show for its run at the Young Vic. It’s still far from perfect, though, and the problems come mainly from a lack of focus. Is the show about the ridiculous act of terrorism that the hapless London-based spy Verloc is ordered to commit? Or is it a story about Verloc’s innocent wife Winnie and her devoted half-wit brother Stevie who are dragged into the mess only to be torn apart?
It could be both, but ‘The Secret Agent’ isn’t really either. It moves too swiftly from a satirical look at the politics of fear to a tale of love, betrayal and despair. What’s more, there’s not enough development of the characters early on, so we’re thrown into this strange story too fast and we care little about what happens.
What does come through well in Joseph Alford’s music hall-referencing production is the taut, time-bomb tick of the stylised movements, choreographed by Eva Vilamitjana. The physicality of the characters nicely conjures the sense of absurdity and threat inherent in Conrad’s prescient story. The cast also embodies the movement very well, especially Leander Deeny who has great wit and timing as the Russian embassy man Vladimir.
In fact, the choreography often expresses what the script doesn’t manage to. Though there are moments of poetry, they don’t add up within the piece as a whole and as a result we’re left feeling cold.
By Daisy Bowie-Sell