There has always been a certain tension at the heart of the Lyric Hammersmith’s new project. One manifestation of this tension emerged in the opening lines of Sean Holmes’ launch speech, which was paradoxically required to contain both arrogance and humility – “Arrogance because there is definitely something provocative and cocky in the gesture we are making, and humility because we are aware of that arrogance and hope that it reflects a desire in our audience”. Secret Theatre is a project that strives to both explode and build, to create something new while drawing inspiration from past endeavours, to maintain secrecy at the same time as being inclusive, to challenge the supremacy of the text while not entirely departing from its spirit. It’s no easy task.
There is also something a little disingenuous about assessing this task now, after the first two shows have opened. Secret Theatre is taking place over a year, establishing a permanent company of ten actors and ten creatives to work on a series of shows in repertory, through a process that is continually adapting to the space, the people in it and the audiences coming through the doors. It is a structural shift over many months, and its real value lies in its impact as a whole endeavour rather than in the individual shows that are emerging from it. So the current view is necessarily a limited one – just the first glimpse of a much wider picture. This response, therefore, must also be a glimpse, an early set of impressions rather than a comprehensive critical overview.
The element of the project to receive most attention at this stage is embedded in its very name – the “secret” part of Secret Theatre. One of many risks the Lyric is taking with this season is the decision not to release the names of the shows, instead referring to them as Show 1, Show 2, etc. The stated aim of this decision is to “counter a prevailing culture saturated with information”, allowing theatregoers to experience work without the burden of expectation. Since its launch, however, the secrecy of the project has come to acquire lots of other connotations, many of them highlighting that central tension. It functions as a sexy marketing tool, but it is also in danger of implying exclusivity. It erodes at the notion of theatre as commodity, yet it is problematic in the risk it asks audiences to take in shelling out money on an unknown.
It remains uncertain just what effect this secrecy will have in the longer term, although it’s unfortunate – not to mention a little ironic – that this has so far overshadowed the shows themselves. To approach the work in the spirit of its creation, however, I’ll be keeping the secrecy intact as far as possible. Whatever the other implications of the “secret” tag, it feels churlish to deprive anyone of the heady thrill of sitting in an auditorium buzzing with the kind of anticipation that only comes from going in blind. Anything might happen.
And this spirit – this breathless sense of the unexpected – runs right through the metabolism of both productions, even once they reveal their titles. Show 2 does not remain a mystery for long, with an early line clearly determining the familiar classic text, but the revelation takes nothing from the vitality of this interpretation. It might not be quite the theatrical hand grenade that Holmes promised to lob in his interview with Matt Trueman, but it somehow manages to strip itself of the kind of baggage that its iconic female protagonist drags on in a towering collection of suitcases.
In common with the troublingly clinical, synthetic eroticism of Three Kingdoms, Show 2 manages to be at once achingly sexy and stylishly cold. The plot is centred on two sisters (Nadia Albina and Adelle Leonce), both of whom find themselves far from their privileged rural upbringing in the cramped claustrophobia of the city, and both of whose lives are shaken by the impulsive violence of the younger woman’s husband (Sergo Vares). In this version, sexuality is repeatedly foregrounded, as performers undress at the front of the stage and Leonce suggestively licks ice-cream from a spoon. But any sensuality is underscored with a hard edge of menace. No one exemplifies this better than Vares, whose muscular presence hints at the animalistic traits attributed to his character, but who maintains a deeply unsettling aura of control even in the fiercest of his rages.
Alongside themes of sex, gender and violence, this production also draws out a thread of fragile hope and imagination. Hyemi Shin’s clean, pleasingly minimalist set is something of a blank canvas, onto which Albina’s delicate, damaged escapist can project her desires. Brightly coloured balloons are symbolic as well as celebratory: hopeful and captivating, but easily punctured and deflated. The aural landscape of the production, meanwhile, is filled with a series of intoxicating Motown tunes, each truncated as abruptly as the protagonist’s dreams. It all makes perfect sense, but as metaphor rather than literal representation. As Albina declares “I don’t want realism, I want magic”, it’s hard not to nod emphatically.
Show 1, while grappling with an equally revered play, has the benefit of reimagining a text that is already fragmented and incomplete. This is where the non-literal, symbolic approach of the Secret Theatre team really pays off, exposing an ugly, oozing wound right in the middle of a play whose implicit social critique is suddenly painfully explicit. Here, the central character (Billy Seymour) is stuck on a punishing treadmill, trapped in a life of unremitting poverty and toil. To eliminate any doubt about the impossibility of his situation, Seymour is tethered to the middle of the stage, able only to go round and round on a pre-determined path, always running but never getting anywhere. The only way to sever this tie is through violence, an answer that is really no answer at all.
The dark, desperate world presented on stage is one in which individuals like the protagonist have been mercilessly dehumanised by the system they exist within. This is clear right from the captivating animalistic struggle of the first scene – as startling an opening as you’re likely to witness – and is insistently compounded by the images that follow. In one of the rawest, messiest moments of the show, the cast pull on animal onesies and dance furiously under flickering strobe lights, flinging water across the stage. It’s a thrilling yet devastating stage image, capturing both the giddy intensity and the furious despair of this hedonistic release.
The real punch to the guts, however, is reserved for the conclusion. In the aftermath of the play’s climactic scene of violence, Albina – who has spent most of the show hovering above the action like a mocking angel – steps up to a microphone. In the most haunting of the show’s many striking music choices, she launches into a bitter rendition of a song that suddenly shifts the nature of what we have been watching for the past 75 minutes; something previously abstract is made uncomfortably specific. Through the insertion of these bile-coated lyrics into the text, a brilliant and disturbing new reading is revealed.
One of the great joys of both shows is to see unexpected ingredients of the text wrenched out and realised anew. In place of literalism, a rich symbolic language illuminates new facets of the plays. In Show 2, a repeated line about metaphorical “coloured lights” is visually translated into gorgeous, colour-shifting neon bulbs; the grim, relentless cycle that is implicit in the narrative of Show 1 finds expression through Seymour’s compulsion to walk in endless circles. Rarely does theatrical metaphor combine such careful thought with real visual excitement.
My initial thought, on emerging from Show 2, was that this is theatre that turns the text inside out. Theatre that grabs something from deep inside the guts of a play and holds it up for an audience to see; theatre that excavates from within rather than imposing from outside. But on reflection, perhaps even to distinguish between internal and external is a misguided project which continues to implicitly judge a production based on its relationship with the text. It might be more accurate to say that this is theatre in which the text is in dialogue with the rest of the stage vocabulary, neither raising its voice nor dwindling to a whimper.
And here is where the much discussed secrecy that surrounds the project suddenly seems vital. The first two shows are productions of famous, frequently revived texts, each carrying not just baggage but voluminous trunks of the stuff. Some have expressed surprise that Holmes has opted for two such behemoths of classic drama, but in the light of Secret Theatre’s aims, nothing could be more logical. How better to challenge the structures of literalism and “serving the text” than to reimagine a pair of plays with a long lineage in this tradition?
The names of these plays, however, inevitably conjure a whole range of associations and expectations, influencing their reception and perhaps even putting some people off entirely. In the case of such well-known plays, the decision to keep their titles under wraps is more than a mere gimmick; it allows for a viewing experience that does not immediately hold the production to the example of the text. Instead of measuring the show up to an imagined ideal, we are freed to watch what is actually happening on stage, in this moment, now. Whether we enjoy watching that or not, central to the gesture is a refreshing liberation from pinning the entire production down to one supposedly fixed element. All of a sudden, everything is up for grabs.
Of course, none of the work that has come out of Secret Theatre so far is perfect. Much of the emerging aesthetic remains in the swaggering shadow of Three Kingdoms, from the drenching of water to the abundance of suitcases, while the promised explosiveness could still do with a bit more of a bang. The secrecy is perhaps mishandled and the right vocabulary to discuss it is still being shaped. But this is theatre that is not afraid to be messy, theatre that refuses to be quiet and well behaved. It’s theatre that demands to be watched – really watched – and that respects its audience’s ability to think and interpret. It’s rough, it’s sexy, it’s interrogative, it’s thrilling. It’s theatre to make the heart beat a little faster. And that, surely, is something to get excited about.
Photo: Alexandra Davenport.