The Ministry of Fear
Based on the novel by Graham Greene, adapted by Daniel Jamieson
Theatre Alibi with Exeter Northcott and Oxford Playhouse
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
Visually superb, excellently acted and with well integrated recorded sound and live music, The Ministry of Fear is a joy to watch. It is difficult - probably impossible - to fault the production values without being minutely nit-picking. A joy to watch, indeed.
But to engage with? That's a different thing entirely. Greene's novel is a psychological study of a man (Arthur Rowe) caught up, during World War II, in events which make no sense to him and, although we see Rowe's confusion and bafflement, we don't really experience what goes on in his mind. We see but don't share.
And therein lies the problem. It's around forty years since I read the book and little of it now remains in my memory, so I was effectively approaching this production without any preconceptions or, to be honest, prior knowledge of the story. The result is that I came away as baffled as poor Arthur.
It's a spy story, darkly comic at times, with a complex plot which, in this adaptation at any rate, seems obscure and occasionally incomprehensible. Why, for example, are the participants in an English village fête involved in passing on a film which contains top secret material to a German spy? Why is Arthur Rowe taken to be the courier? Why is so much made of Rowe's mercy killing of his wife?
I suspect that adaptor Daniel Jamieson was keen to keep as much of the original novel as possible but over 220 pages cannot be condensed into just over two hours on stage without losing depth and this is what has happened here. We are left with a series of events (and a very effective depiction of the period) but, without being privy to the workings of the main protagonist's mind, it is purely those events which we see.
It's the sort of production where you have to sit back and let the story and the very clever staging carry you along and not look too closely or question too deeply.
Sheila Connor reviewed this production at Guildford
Reviewer: Peter Lathan