The Young Vic theatre is a blend of the old and the new. It was opened in 1960s socialist Britain, as a place where the next generation of actors, directors, writers and designers could come to work with some of the best in the business. High quality, low prices. Essentially an experiment, it is unsurprising that it continues to deliver experimental theatre, as is the case with its current production of The Secret Agent.
Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent is set in late Victorian London, a place of apparent discipline, progressiveness and piety with a seedy underworld nobody wanted to mention. Alfred Verloc is the working class shopkeeper, member of an anarchist cell as well as a secret agent for the British police. Living with his wife Winnie, her mentally underdeveloped brother, Stevie, and his mother-in-law, Verloc struggles to balance his life and multiple responsibilities. Can a man be a husband, brother, son, terrorist and spy at the same time? An exploration of morality, politics and domesticity in England, the Young Vic’s production drew on ideas of madness and terror in the text. Off-the-wall company Theatre O, who the New York Times described as “inventive and compelling,” used unconventional staging to choppy effect. At times it was truly spellbinding; at others, it was simply bemusing.
The first glance at the stage was wonderfully intriguing. An empty, brown leather armchair sat, shrouded in smoke centre stage, illuminated by a spotlight. Focusing on a single point of the stage immediately raised questions about the narrator of the story, the central character: who will fill the chair? Set designer Simon Daw clearly understands how to draw an audience in. Physical theatre was used to good effect, the stiff, dummy-like movements of the actors on stage during the opening and finale of the play being almost grotesque. This was deliciously unsettling, in the same way as the story is, yet ambiguous too. This nameless fear was felt throughout the play, exacerbated by the dark lighting and sunglasses worn by some of the cast. Not all is being revealed, mirroring the same mystery surrounding espionage itself. However, at times, with Theatre O overstretched the bizarre world on stage. Without giving too much away, there was a moment when the fourth wall (the imaginary dividing line between the audience and actors) was broken. Whilst Theatre O state on their website the importance of audience members “engaging,” physical participation is not a pre-requisite of this. The illusion was broken: something was lost.
Acting-wise, the standard was less patchy. Carolina Valdés was believable as Winnie, the long-suffering wife of an inadequate man. Her skinny frame and serious expression befitted a character with responsibilities to shoulder, and at the play’s climax, Valdés delivered a truly spine-tingling performance. Leander Deeny was vulnerable Stevie, portraying a mentally challenged young man with grace. One can easily forget how hard it is to make the transformation from adult to child, and Deeny captured the mindset of the latter authentically. George Potts was weirdly soulless as Mr Verloc, though this was oddly effective. A man defined by the functions he fulfils would have a mechanical side to his character, and Potts’s grasp of this was sophisticated.
I felt pleasantly challenged after leaving the theatre. The Young Vic’s production of The Secret Agent was as meandering and unsettled as Conrad’s own writing, and this was surprisingly effective. Joseph Alford’s direction did not let the audience off lightly, and occasionally went too far, but it was unusual and interesting.