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The Secret Theatre

Anders Lustgarten
Shakespeare's Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe

Tara Fitzgerald as Queen Elizabeth and Aidan McArdle as Sir Francis Walsingham Credit: Marc Brenner
Aidan McArdle as Sir Francis Walsingham and Ian Redford as Sir William Cecil Credit: Marc Brenner
Tara Fitzgerald as Queen Elizabeth Credit: Marc Brenner

There weren’t any CCTV cameras in Elizabethan England but that didn’t stop it from being a surveillance society. Anders Lustgarten’s new play is about the embedded spy systems run by Secretary of State William Cecil and his successor Francis Walsingham and in particular the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Stuart queen and the ongoing threat from Spain.

He delivers a fascinating story of double agents and duplicity set in a wider picture of an embattled England threatened from the Continent, of public image creation, of class divide with the development of enclosures and the growth of capitalism and an exploitation of the fear of terrorism that has uncanny parallels (entirely intentional) with our own times.

The Wanamaker Theatre’s ambience is perfect. The audience finds the house unlit except for what filters from outside then is pitched into darkness. Candles and torches, repeatedly being lit and extinguished leave plenty of shadows to hide in. The gold ornamentation of the stage panels glimmer in sixteenth-century light but then drawers pull out from them like a huge filing cabinet, each full of secrets collected by what Walsingham so aptly calls “intelligencers”.

Lustgarten bends history slightly to make neater drama. After gruesome torture, wounds and pain graphically presented, Jesuit Robert Southwell (Sam Marks) is questioned by Walsingham, though Sir Francis died before the priest was arrested. But his spies spying on other spies, of spooks making increasing demands on the treasury are very believable.

The Secret Theatre presents an autocratic Elizabeth, face whitened, eyebrows drawn on, who expects her politicians to prostrate themselves for her entrance. Tara Fitzgerald makes her harsh-voiced and impatient. The Virgin Queen may be a propaganda invention but her manner is icy. She is scathing about Walsingham’s low birth. He (and not just he) is always uncertain how to handle her.

Walsingham was in France and witnessed the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered; the memory haunts him and fuels his fear of Catholics. Aidan McArdle gives a picture of a driven man, ruthless in manipulating others, lives dispensable if that fits his purpose, but Lustgarten gives him nightmares where he is himself tortured and on his deathbed lets him discover how he has been used and spied on.

It is a strong company with Ian Redford rich-voiced as William Cecil, Cassie Layton as Walsingham’s daughter, unforgiving of her father for the death of her husband Philip Sidney (Sam Marks), and Colin Ryan as Walsingham’s clerk and Edmund Kingsley as spy Pooley. David Partridge plays plotter Babington and Abraham Popoola torturer Topcliffe (who was also a Member of Parliament!) and other plotters and informers are doubled with Sam Marks also stretched on the rack as Jesuit Southwell, seeking to be made a martyr.

Director Matthew Dunster doesn’t over-emphasise modern parallels, but rather leaves it to the audience to find their own half-amused comparisons in mention of things like foreigners and money coming into London. He gets some full-blooded performances and with designer Jon Bausor adds tongue-in-cheek touches using models of Kensington Palace Gardens and a burning Armada in a mainly dark play. The Virgin Queen’s description of tennis is more savage than funny but Cecil’s passing description of James VI of Scotland as the King of Queens raised a chuckle.

The Secret Theatre’s Walsingham understands exactly how to exercise control. “It is not enough,” he says, “that men are watched: they must think themselves watched—even when they are not.” Here the audience watch them under the guidance of Malcolm Rippeth’s candle-powered lighting. Its constant reconfiguration is another reminder of how life is controlled by those with power.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton