Secret Theatre: Show Four

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Wednesday 12th February 2014

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

Show Four is a strange beast. It shows the Secret Theatre ensemble really interrogating and getting to grips with gender and political thought whilst also retreating a little from the loud, bombastic tone of the first three shows. It is an adaptation whilst also feeling very much like a new play. It’s the first show for which Sean Holmes isn’t credited as director. And we’re no longer in the main theatre.

That last point marks more of a shift than you may imagine. Moving from the grandiose, proscenium-arched main space to the more intimate setting of the Lyric’s studio space means you get to view the whole thing in close-up, honing in on the style of the piece as its context changes. Perhaps that’s why, on the surface, Show Four doesn’t feel as ‘radical’ or ‘brazen’ (whatever you want to call it) as the first three shows, existing as it does within the kind of space which is more ‘used to’ experimentation, as it were.

That’s not to negate the piece in any way, as it sees the ensemble working out exactly how they work together, allowing more of a focus on the political and social meaning of the piece. Hayley Squires’ play follows the political maneuverings of Ciano, the tyrannical head of Glitterland (also the play’s title) and his aide, Nemo. Initially, we see them on a board of (mostly) male leaders, but they are quick to pick off their opponents in order to gain more power. After Ciano’s wife Isabelle is killed, attention turns to Victoria, a starlet who will allow the duo to get a stranglehold on even more power. It’s a complex, messy plot, and it’s sometimes a nightmare trying to keep up, but the confidence of the performers and of Ellen McDougall’s direction manage to hold the gaze.

Glitterland is, essentially, a post-apocalyptic political thriller on speed. Squires presents us with a world of corruption and tyranny, where individuals are reduced to their body and their job. STAR, the state propaganda machine, churns out ‘culture’ which will serve those in power, and an early scene even tells us much about our present state of arts funding. Characters regularly hand out tabs of some strange drug, causing them to spasm momentarily and raising questions about the origins of the protagonists’ actions. It’s all exacerbated by Hyemi Shin’s enclosed, grey set, which heightens the action and allows Lizzie Powell’s sinister lighting design to fling towering shadows onto the walls. Doors open to reveal a more open space than we first imagined and a tiny, almost laughable, revolve allows for crude but shocking twists. This is a dark, twisted world, but it never stops feeling familiar.

One of the most interesting aspects of Glitterland is its gender politics. Katherine Pearce’s Victoria sets up this lens at the top of the show, as she asks “What is wrong with not looking beautiful?… I’m sick of hearing men’s voices about beauty”. The men on Ciano’s board are misogynistic and arrogant, viewing their wives and daughters as lesser beings; in one explosive scene, Cara Horgan’s Isabelle comes to blows with Hammed Animashaun’s Ciano, as he completely fails to allow her to speak her mind. Women are put on show and forced to justify their existence. Men simply watch and talk.

Subverting this slightly, Nadia Albina is the only actor not to play her own sex. She performs a parody of a slick-haired cockney geezer, always chewing gum and deploying “darlin’” as a term of endearment. The lens thus becomes more tightly focussed on her actions and her performance of gender, ridiculing this stance further. It almost makes you wish that the company had gone the whole hog and swapped everyone around. It would have inevitably problematised certain moments, but it may have given the whole thing the kick it sometimes needs.

You see, for all its searing insight and detailed political wrangling, Glitterland feels like the most ‘conventional’ thing Secret Theatre have come up with so far (and I don’t mean that as a criticism). It’s an unarguably wordy and complex play, so it’s unsurprising more attention is paid to spoken text here than in previous shows. Much of the time, for example, we simply see a couple of actors on stage thrashing something out (and when these two actors are Animashaun and Leo Bill, you could watch for hours), working out what to do next. The moments of ‘action’ or ‘theatricality’ or whatever you want to call them then become more accentuated, and they’re the moments which capture the attention above everything else. The spasms become punctuation, whilst bodies and colours become descriptors.

Though I have nothing against density of argument, the complex plotting can sometimes be a struggle. Perhaps this is just because I’ve just watched this week’s exquisite episode of Inside No. 9, but, contrary to that stupid rhyme, sometimes action can be more powerful than words. There are some gorgeously executed ideas here – including bloodied hands standing in for guns, papers cascading over the stage and strobe lighting enveloping Animashaun as he shudders to dubstep – but they’re few and far between. In the past few months, the ensemble have proved that you can make meaning through visual as well as spoken language, and here that occasionally seems to have been forgotten.

This is, however, an adaptation of another play, so there’s only so much Squires could have cut before losing the plot of the original altogether. I have to admit that, though I was aware something interesting was going on with the insertion of speeches written in blank verse, the fact that it was an adaptation didn’t properly dawn on me until the interval. I’m not as au fait with Jabobean revenge tragedy as I’d like to be, and even if I had been I think it would have taken me a while to work out that this is based on John Webster’s The White Devil. Squires writes with such clarity and her approach is so fresh that it initially seems more likely that she’s trying to do something intertextual rather than a straightforward adaptation (the two, of course, are not mutually exclusive). This isn’t to diminish her work in any way; rather, it demonstrates there’s a poetry in the writing which allows it to exist on its own terms.

Glitterland may not be quite as sexy or seductive as previous shows the ensemble have created, but it’s necessary to show the range and quality of the work which is being produced here. It’s also got me thinking about the difference in how I, as audience member and writer-about-theatre, engage with these shows compared to other work; as well as creating space for playing around with the theatrical form, Secret Theatre also makes us question how we engage with the medium. In other settings, for example, we turn up to see a group of people who, more than likely, have been shoved together for that show and that show only. Here, however, you feel like you start to get to know those involved, and that they in return get to know you. You start to telepathically challenge one another and egg each other on, and it feels like both parties become more willing to fuck about. And though it’s important that these shows stand alone, there’s something both extremely satisfying and extremely challenging about charting the progression of the company, collecting the shows like Pokemon cards. A friend pointed out to me recently that, if he were to buy tickets to all the Secret Theatre shows (and he’s well on his way to doing so), he will have spent over £100. That’s a big deal (and not just because he’s a student), and I suspect he won’t be the only one. For one person to spend that much on seeing one group of people making theatre is pretty special. It’s that development, that sustained engagement, that willingness to be honest with one another as audiences and makers, which still makes me giddy with excitement whenever I think and talk about this whole endeavour. True, it’s not without its problems and yes, they’ve still yet to make a show which blows your pants off, but I can’t help but allow the whole thing to intoxicate me.

Photo: Helen Maybank

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