HERE BEGINS THE SPOILER ALERT
Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).
HERE ENDS THE SPOILER ALERT
In this review, I’ve tried to experiment with not including the play’s title, its author or key plot points, just to see how much it is possible to discuss a show without those things. I should also probably say that I went to a small Q&A with Sean Holmes before the show and subsequently chatted to some of the cast and creative team afterwards. Thought I’d put that out there in the interests of full disclosure.
First, it’s worth saying that Show Three is very different to Shows One and Two. We enter the theatre through a different entrance, end up in a different space and watch a piece of work tonally and linguistically different to its predecessors, which makes for a very different experience. In the first two shows, the tension was found by placing a deconstructed version of a ‘classic’, ‘canonical’ text in the context of a grand, ‘proper’ theatre space. In Show Three, it’s almost the opposite way round, with a fairly straightforward reading of a text being placed within the confines of a deconstructed theatre space.
And that’s exactly what it is, pretty much to the letter. I have to admit that after being shepherded round the back corridors of the Lyric and ushered into a spacious ‘studio’, it dawned on me pretty quickly that we were on the stage itself. Looking above, you can see the flies and remnants of the set for Show Two, whilst the huge metal door way upstage is fairly obviously the loading bay.
Sitting perpendicular to the seats in the auditorium, then (but with the safety curtain down), we are faced with a plywood stage, on which sits a number of chairs and a strange looking bed, like something you’d find in a castle dungeon. Two areas on the oblong stage area are delineated by squares of light, which turn out to represent two different rooms being viewed simultaneously. At the back of the stage area, a walkway leads to the aforementioned red door, and up stage left is another entrance.
The play itself is an odd, ever-shifting entity, sitting somewhere between dystopian nightmare, all-guns-blazing satire and old-fashioned British farce. It never lets its audience off the hook and forces constant engagement by perpetual reinvention of form and style, aided by Sean Holmes’ direction. At one point, it feels like the entirety of the play is going to be set in only two rooms, before the rug is pulled from under our feet and a domino effect is started as the spaces created by the piece continue opening up. In one quite extraordinary coup, the theatre space itself is completely flipped on its side, subverting predefined norms and roles of audience and actor whilst creating a striking image which costs the creative team pretty much nothing.
Themes like capital punishment, the role of protest, career enhancement and sabotage all get considered here, with the driving question being “If violent people are likely to kill again, what good reason is there for not serving them the death penalty?” It’s clearly a provocation and elicits visceral responses, no matter what our personal beliefs, but the interest lies in the fact that the whole thing is set in a not wholly inconceivable future where the Home Secretary has undue involvement in individual prisons and the NHS has become simply the ‘HS’. Considering this is a context which actually feels like it could be a few years down the line (and it pains me so much to write that), the play asks “What if?”; if our society continues to plunge deeper into worshipping and catering for the individual without giving a toss about the collective, then where does that lead us? At one moment, a character implores another (originally ‘good’) character to “Be human”. “I tried that. Didn’t work” is all he gets in response. In a world where each person is king, even those who began with good intentions are broken down.
Holmes also finds ways of finding the theatre of the piece by slowly introducing bits of business which point to its artificiality which escalate out of control as the characters spiral downwards. After the fairly ‘straight’ first section, Cara Horgan is left alone on stage to strike the set, throwing around chairs and wrenching away props so that she begins the next scene breathless. Later, the microphones which hang from the ceiling (used as a public address system towards the beginning) play an ever more central role, their chords becoming sinister as the dull thud they make as they plummet to earth acts as a glottal stop to the play’s breakneck rhythm. In one quite terrifying moment, Leo Bill walks off the stage and right up to the audience, eye-balling a few people in the front rows as he delivers a speech halfway between ‘in character’ and ‘as himself’. The speech then takes on a whole new meaning, with the poetry of the writing finding a searingly honest quality in order to probe our role as an audience.
All of this, however, could be a little problematic. Though Show Three, like all the best satire, makes a point about our present situation whilst also being hugely funny, the text itself never quite circumnavigates all of the ethical issues which come from satire as a genre. My problem with the form is that it fails to allow us to see a way out of present orthodoxies, sometimes succumbing to the notion that “the present state of things will probably continue, so we might as well laugh about it”. Here, too, Holmes’ decision to draw attention to artificiality could run the risk of leading to a response which doesn’t feel the need to act because well, after all, it was a play, and not real life.
Which is why the decision to place this production quite literally on stage is such a smart one. By being self-reflexive, Show Three therefore asks us to look one step further that the play itself, inviting an interrogation of context. An empty auditorium is a space of both complete hopelessness and total possibility, and by showing us one the Secret Theatre ensemble suggest an alternative which the text itself doesn’t quite land on: moments of communal thought, where the collective experience is superior to individual desire. In other words: theatre.