The Secret Agent at the Young Vic
One of the most widely quoted literary works since September 11, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a tale of anarchist plots and state-sponsored terrorism, is a novel for our time. Devised and performed by Theatre O under the directorship of Joseph Alford, this interpretation of Conrad’s novel compares the early 20th century radical movement with today’s climate of terror.
Following the story of anarchist and secret agent Verloc, Theatre O’s production is one of two halves, and it is this split that causes the problem. From the beginning the tone is comedic and Vaudevillian, kicking off with a jaunty song and farcical acts around the dinner table. After being introduced to Verloc’s wife Winnie, his chattering mother in-law and her son Stevie who has learning disabilities, we accompany Verloc to his meeting with Mr Vladimir (the head of a foreign embassy). Mr Vladimir, believing that the British are not taking the threat of anarchy seriously enough, charges Verloc with bombing the Greenwich observatory – a mad and pointless act (that actually happened in 1894) designed to spread fear far and wide. To persuade Verloc, Vladimir uses creepy dolls and recruits members of the audience to act as his entourage. This breaking of the fourth wall is amusing enough, but given that it is never repeated and that the tone so quickly alters after this scene, it seems somewhat clumsy.
Theatre O have stayed faithful to the plot and structure of Conrad’s book, and following another dinner scene we are thrown into the future, after the bomb has gone off. We also, from this point onwards, see things mostly through the eyes of Winnie, a tragic and one-dimensional character. This change in tone is cataclysmic for the play: Winnie is not able to sustain the story and the often melodramatic world that the play slips into is unable to garner much sympathy.
While the imagery and design have been expertly conceived and it is clearly well-directed, the story is so muddled and rushed that Theatre O’s desire to comment on the politics of fear is lost in the mire. With either more time or a tighter script this could be a suspenseful story for our times, but as it is, the attempt to portray anarchy in the UK does not pay off.
The Secret Agent is on at the Young Vic until 21st September 2013, for further information or to book visit here.