Theatre review: The Secret Agent, The Maria, Young Vic, London


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The Independent Culture

In Joseph Conrad's great 1907 novel, there's a botched attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. One of the central ironies of the book is that the atrocity is instigated not by the anarchist cell to which we are introduced but by the forces of counter-terrorism.

Verloc, the agent of the title, has infiltrated the undercover group and sells their secrets to the London embassy of a foreign power. But the new-broom First Secretary there questions his usefulness and threatens to drop him unless he concocts a barbarity that will panic the over-tolerant British public into a crackdown on political dissidents. The only figure who loses his life in the resulting bungled plot is Stevie, the simple-minded brother of Verloc's wife.   

The notion that, in the interests of security, paranoid governments might end up aping the fanaticism they claim to deplore makes the novel feel remarkably prescient and you can understand why Theatre O should think that this is a timely moment for a stage reworking.

All the keener pity, then, that their heavily stylised adaptation, directed by Joseph Alford, is so erratic and incoherent, lurching in manner from white-face and bowler-hatted vaudevillian send-up to crudely choreographed melodrama. 

The encounter between Leander Deeny's cartoonily loony Vladimir and George Potts's mild-seeming nonentity of a Verloc is presented as a farcical music-hall routine in which the latter, with the aid of two dolls, is required to convince a bunch of uncomfortable, biscuit-munching audience-participants of the scariness of the terrorist threat. But the failure of this exercise is so inevitable in its embarrassing jokiness that it distracts from, rather than clinches, Vladimir's chilling point that “madness alone is truly terrifying”. 

There are a few sequences that work. Doubling as Stevie, Leander Deeny is genuinely moving in the subjective scenes where the damaged, tongue-tied boy is able to tell us, in a rush of heightened articulacy, how the cruel world feels to his agitated, hyper-sensitive mind. But having traded in two-dimensional caricatures, the shadowy, atmospherically lit production is hard put to release the emotional horror of the later episodes. 

The novel achieves this by the paradoxical means of sustaining its poised, distancingly ironic tone but the superbly escalating passage where the grief-stunned Winnie is driven to murderous frenzy by Verloc's massive self-pity is simplified here into a mechanical ballet of attack and resistance as Carolina Valdes's hands spring back to clamp her face after each fierce attempt by her husband to prise them away. A box of somewhat tired tricks seems to have applied to this freshly disturbing and pertinent story.

To 21 September; 0207 922 2922