The moody, star- and cherub-dotted interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is always a part of the plays performed within it, functioning as the near opposite of a blank space to project ideas onto. This is particularly true with the world premiere of Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre. Matthew Dunster’s production folds itself into the aesthetics of the interior, revelling in the visual and immersive quirks of the space. It’s an approach that, despite the limitations of the play itself, makes the experience of watching it largely enjoyable. There’s an appreciation of the excitement that being in a theatre can bring that lends the production the hint of being Christmas show, even though it closes on 16 December.
A major part of the Sam Wanamaker’s USP is that it’s lit by candlelight. Yet with Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design this feels more pronounced – the darkness darker, the flickering light more precarious. There are few smells as overwhelmingly nostalgic as the scent of just-blown-out candles. The flames are extinguished on several occasions, including at the very end of the play where the gradual plunging into darkness signals the end for Elizabethan spy master Sir Francis Walsingham (Aiden McArdle). Each time they go out, the smell takes a little while to waft over from the stage to the back of the pit area. But I know it’s coming so I sit like an eager basset hound, nose in the air, masochistically wanting to suck in this wobbly smell of birthday cakes and churches.
More often than not, the subtleties of this production are found in the design (Jon Bausor). The world outside the insular environs of the court are presented in miniature, like little board games for the pantalooned politicos to play with. A grey, sketched map of London appears in a circular window above the stage, later replaced by illuminated fragments of a cypher. Delicate, white dioramas of Kensington Gardens are wheeled out when Elizabeth I (Tara Fitzgerald) takes her daily walk between the rows of parterre hedges. And in a particularly beautiful moment, a paper Armada is set ablaze (imagine how much more fun Year 8 History would be if setting miniature boats on fire happened once a week?).
At one point, the austerely dressed Walsingham mocks the concept of fashion. If the character could do a little meta side-step outside of the play – maybe sit a while and smell the candles whilst watching the action – he might change his mind. Queen Elizabeth I’s gowns are exquisite creations (designed by Jon Bausor working with costume supervisor Laura Hunt; costume makers Sallyann Brooke, Jackie Burston, Tomoko Honda, Sue James, Pauline Parker and Sten Vollmuller; and head of wardrobe Megan Cassidy). In 2014, London’s Garden Museum (yes, it has one and it’s worth visiting to indulge your fantasies of being a Medieval nun wandering wistfully among the herb beds) held an exhibition titled Fashion and Gardens. One of Elizabeth’s outfits would sit perfectly in those glass cases, a living monument of botanical embroidery.
All I want for Christmas (since you asked) is to borrow one of these magnificent creations and take a short stroll down the Southbank in it. Only this is unlikely to happen, partly because I’m almost certainly a larger dress size than Tara Fitzgerald, and partly because ‘strolling’ is specifically what the wearer cannot do in these sculptural frocks. Instead, Fitzgerald artfully sails in choreographed lines through the drab, masculine world of bureaucrats like one of those burning Spanish boats. Fashion, as always, is power. And Walsingham’s ostentatious display of puritanical mourning is just as much a statement as Elizabeth’s commandeering of finery fit only for a queen.
But whilst there’s plenty to unpack in the elements of design, the play is frustratingly slight. One of main problems is that it fails to establish a tone. Many of the characters, particularly the impervious, peevish queen (nothing scarier than a woman in power, eh lads?) are played for laughs and I keep having to swat the memory of Blackadder from buzzing at my forehead. It fully succeeds in being funny in parts, but these Horrible Histories moments jar with the times when it appears the play wants to be taken seriously – the ‘serious’ themes being civilian surveillance, imaginary enemies and the manipulation of this mindset to justify military action.
But here again there’s a weakness. Lustgarten’s play identifies a parallel between Elizabethan and modern Britain – and it’s an interesting one. Yet aside from pointing out the similarities, The Secret Theatre doesn’t offer any especial insight into any of this, unless the insight is simply that we’ve always possessed a terrible predilection for snooping, condemning and falsifying. This rustle through the archives doesn’t provide any answers, but I might be being harsh on Lustgarten. Does history ever give us the pre-packaged conclusions we’re seeking? Maybe the lesson is that we’ve been here before and, by 2017, we should really be better than this.
The Secret Theatre is on until 16 December 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.