Ciphers at the Bush Theatre
An ordinary woman is recruited by the secret service in what begins as an ordinary role, and it is this sense of ordinary that is the most intriguing thing about Dawn King’s Ciphers: an unsettling journey through the murky world of undercover espionage and double agents. Unlike King’s first collaboration with director Blanche McIntyre, the dystopian Foxfinder, this Out of Joint production of Ciphers is set on the streets we walk on, in the bars we drink in, and behind the doors of the buildings we walk past.
When agent, Justine is found dead, her sister attempts to uncover the truth behind the suspected foul-play and, in doing so, reveals how opaque even the most “normal” of people can be.
Partly inspired by undercover MI6 agent, Gareth Williams’ death in 2010, King creates a narrative thriller that is structured in a series of twisting scenes that flick from one to the next – almost film-like – with the help of James Perkins’ stark and sleek set.
It is a play about double agents, professionally and personally, where the four actors themselves double up to portray eight characters. Gráinne Keenan is superb in her portrayal of both protagonist Justine, and her more capricious sister Kerry who will stop at nothing to expose those whom she believes to be behind her sister’s death.
McIntyre, who won a UK Theatre Award for her Headlong production of Chekhov’s The Seagull last year, applies the same kind of scope to Ciphers in illuminating even the smallest of details and pointing out the unremarkable.
But where there is momentum in the first half, the second stagnates somewhat when wires begin to cross and already muddied morals become lost in the unraveling plot. It is not without suspense and the haunting paranoia of not knowing those closest to you permeates through until the end; however the play’s real strengths lie before the interval.
Parallels, hiding in plain sight and reflections are realised especially in the unexpected similarities between the sisters. “You look like her”, they say to Kerry more than once, when talking about her sister. It is an uncomfortable reminder of how fine the line is between knowing everything, and knowing nothing. The final scene reminds us of that, leaving a lingering feeling that when you think you know everything, you might actually know nothing at all.
Ciphers is on at Bush Theatre until 8th February 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Ciphers here:
Watch an interview with playwright Dawn King here: