A ricochet plot that deals in debauch and heartbreak in a decidedly seedy underworld of subterfuge and betrayal, Dawn King’s new play Ciphers packs punch in a sleek paired-down set, aided and abetted by stand-out performances from shape-shifting actors.
Reunited here with the talented director Blanche McIntyre with whom she launched her thrillingly successful debut, Foxfinders, Out of Joint, Exeter Northcott and Bush Theatre present King’s follow-up. If the first play was a dystopian fable, this gritty drama is just the right mixture of device and allegory, where four actors play eight interlocking characters, all of whom are somehow engaged or damaged by the secret service world that runs at all times in creepy tandem. At times, this play conveys the emotional dissonance of the film Closer with a comparably tight lineup of characters. But whereas that film was about sexual and emotional intrigue, this atmospheric spy-swap is about, I suspect, the failure of loneliness in the modern city-state and how the geared-up intelligence community uses that isolation to prey on targets’ vulnerabilities. Grudgingly nodding back to the heyday of espionage, several key scenes unfold in Russian, with subtitles coolly arranged at the edge of the stage on screens, further blending genres and formats suitably for a modern audience used to a multimedia format.
The narrative’s gaze follows Justine, played by a fantastic Grainne Keenan, who begins the play in that quintessential other interrogation room of the post Bush-Blair years: not extraordinary rendition, but the wholesale evisceration of a generation’s chance to get into the job market – any job, at any price, other than an internship.
Coolly adjudicated by Sunita (Shereen Martin) who plays Justine’s job interviewer and subsequent secret service boss, Justine quickly rises through the ranks and as reward, must befriend a suspected Jihadist (Ronny Jhutti) and get him to play ball and rat on his Islamic friends. From there it starts to get complicated and not wanting to ruin the plot, I’ll say this much: King’s script has the same actors playing inverted holograms of their counterweight in terms of archetype. Most disturbingly, Bruce Alexander plays both a Russian diplomat trading secrets and sexual favours in hotel rooms, only to be seen next as a stalwart British middle-class father, mourning the death of his child. In the one scene, Alexander sleeps with the same actor who in the next scene is playing his daughter.
Bound to be compared with le Carre’s oeuvre, as several reviewers have already done, what those comparisons are missing is this: le Carre’s England was a world, however post-empire, still conforming to a stricter and thus more clearly understood parameter of Englishness. In his time, one could always fall back on the supposed decency of the English individual as respite from the ‘bad guys’ without or within.
Can we really say such a thing about a modern city-state like London and the individuals that both inhabit its institutions as well as its city streets? What can we say about the intensely divided loyalties inherent in this ad-hoc, inter-generational and misshapen mixture? Gone are the great Cold War certainties. Who is protecting whom in this new order and in whose interests are we aligned?
This dizzying panoply of disquiet filled my mind as I followed these characters’ lives and I could not find an answer. King’s new play has me wondering about inversions: if increased communication means increased surveillance, increased communicability by a marked increase in individual loneliness, what is King’s title saying by eliciting hidden truths?
I’d tell you what I think but would rather make spooks of us all. See if for yourself.