The Lyric Hammersmith’s “Secret Theatre” project has been much discussed, praised, and derided, and I won’t try to recap the project itself – my knowledge of what the company has been up to is entirely second hand anyway. What I had read, however, had made me very curious and I was thrilled to discover that the run of the fourth show in the series would coincide with my London stay.

What intrigued me most about “Secret Theatre” was the company’s interest in staging older plays with an experimental sensibility, shrouding the identity of their shows in secrecy to make it more difficult for audiences to approach the material with set preconceptions and expectations. Their first production was Büchner’s Woyzeck, the second Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, and I had, selfishly, hoped for this focus on classics (in a broad sense) to continue; however Show #3 turned out to be a new play (Caroline Bird’s Chamber Piece), and Show #4, which I saw yesterday, was something of a hybrid, but more new than old – Hayley Squires’s Glitterland, which samples more than adapts Webster’s The White Devil. It’s an interesting play, but in some ways I wish I could have seen what the company would have done with Webster’s text itself. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment.

The other big difference between this show and the previous three, as I understand it, is that #4 does not take place on the Lyric’s main stage, but in the smaller, more intimate studio (though intimacy is relative: it’s instructive to contrast this space with the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse, which holds probably twice as many spectators, has a slightly bigger stage, and yet feels much more private than this blackbox theatre). As Dan Hutton notes, this change in venue has consequences: the studio feels inherently more experimental, so there is less friction between the stage and what happens on it than in a UK proscenium theatre, and the show therefore seems less daring than the first three. I’m sure he’s right. Visually, there are also drawbacks to the blackbox setup – it’s a very shallow stage, much wider than deep, and as a result much of the staging has the same two-dimensionality that also dominates Toronto theatre. The set design (Hyemi Shin) achieves some neat effects thanks to two upstage doors that suggest receding rooms, which adds a bit of depth, and Lizzie Powell uses small spots to create some brilliant shadow work. Hammed Animashaun in particular gets to play with his silhouette as an extension of his body time and again, and the way his shadow body grows huge and diffuse or shrinks to a sharp outline is reminiscent, if on a much smaller scale, of what Michael Thalheimer was doing with spots and shadows in his Frankfurt Medea. In the second act, fog gets used to great effect, rendering the previous sharp angles of the space amorphous and creating a spatially rather disorienting stage image. And there are some lovely top-down spots. But all in all, the space is as small and relatively limited as spaces for non-conventional work tend to be in the English-speaking world. And that seems like a bit of a shame.

Production photo by Helen Maybanks

Production photo by Helen Maybanks

What isn’t limited is the company’s commitment and rigour. My biggest complaint about Duchess of Malfi the other day was its stylistic inconsistency, and it’s a complaint I often have about UK theatre: sets might be minimalist or deconstructed or inspired by a postmodern eclecticism, but the acting being done on those sets remains either wedded to psychological realism or sticks to verse worship. And casts are often internally inconsistent too, even in very good productions (most recently, I felt that way about the Globe/West End/Broadway Richard III). But none of this is true of the Secret Theatre company. Here is a group of actors rigorously pursuing a shared project, and it really shows. This coherence obviously has a lot to do with the fact that they work as an ensemble and have grown together through the process since Show #1: in a certain sense, the Secret Theatre project seems as much about process as about product, with individual shows functioning as showcases of what the company has been working on, collaboratively, for the intervening weeks. I may be wrong about that, but if I’m not, seeing only one of their productions in isolation, as I did, necessarily limits my perspective on what they are about – and on what this particular show is.

All that said, I thought what I saw at the Lyric this week was one of the most unabashedly theatrical productions of a play I’ve seen in London, ever. The entire cast was working in an idiom of physical and vocal extremes – extreme gestures, extreme emotional intensity, extreme loudness, extreme sweetness. None of these actors behaved as if they were doing anything other than theatre: the gestures, the characterizations, the voices, none of this could have been performed for a camera, none of it would have worked on screen, and collectively, it put paid to the notion that “good acting is good acting.” These were highly medium-specific performances, one and all, committedly anti-realist and yet intensely truth-seeking, deeply invested in charged physical tics, gestures, and habits. Take Hammed Animashaun’s jaw: his Ciano, the big boss of “State,” has a way of letting his mouth drop open while working his lower jaw without grinding his teeth, that is visually arresting, conveys a certain brutal, almost primal aggression as well as a degree of helplessness, and becomes a recurrent, recognizable habit of the figure. But it never quite translates into a personal habit – the sort of thing a realistic character just does as part of his individual makeup. Simon Russell Beale’s Lear has similarly specific gestures (for much of the second half of the play, he haltingly feels his lower back), but they are part and parcel of the character’s psychology: he is an old, frail man whose age and fragility find expression in a specific physical arsenal. Animashaun’s Ciano is different. There is a distance between character and performance here that allows for the actor’s body to do more than just stand in for a fictional person: the body can comment on the figure, it does not simply serve it. That presentational attitude runs through the show and all the actors adopt it, from Leo Bill’s extraordinarily kinetic portrayal of Ciano’s handler Nemo (who is frozen in formality one moment, dissolving into a tangled mess of limbs the next) to Nadia Albina’s deliberately clichéd sleazeball film director, all greasy hair and cocked hips. It’s a mode of acting that doesn’t pretend that what we’re watching is real.

What the company doesn’t do – and this is where the Secret Theatre project differs very significantly from the German theatre that it’s clearly influenced by – is break the frame of their presentational approach: what they offer us is a series of self-conscious portrayals, but they do not undercut the presentation as such. They don’t deal in realism, but neither do they consciously reflect or comment on their (re)presentational acts. Albina’s performance may be self-aware in its frame of reference and in its refusal to adopt a straightforward naturalism (she doesn’t disappear into the role in that sense), but there is no ostensible self-consciousness about putting on the kind of performance she is putting on: her Monty may not be a real person, but s/he is a person, or at least a figure, within the world of the play, “real” relative to the other figures in the play; and the reality of that figure within that context is never fractured or undermined. In that sense, the representational system of the show remains intact – there isn’t a moment of acknowledging the audience, of admitting that we also know that the show is a show. The show runs as a show, self-contained, referencing reality without maintaining to be real, but it doesn’t ever stop and look at itself. In this internal coherence, and outward smoothness, then, Show #4 doesn’t declare its allegiance with more overtly metatheatrical traditions, be it Shakespeare’s theatre (or the part of Shakespeare’s theatre that’s virtually dead in most English-speaking productions) or post-Brechtian German theatre, but remains quite firmly rooted in the contemporary English tradition – all appearances to the contrary.

Also not a break with that tradition (and in that regard seemingly unlike the first two Secret Theatre shows): the performance doesn’t seem to do anything too radical with its text. I might be completely wrong about that. Obviously, I haven’t read Hayley Squires’s play, and for all I know, this may be a fundamental reworking of what she wrote. But it doesn’t feel like that (he says, vaguely). Glitterland is neither an updating nor an adaptation of Webster’s play (though some reviewers have called it that). It’s a new play that draws on Webster, but it’s considerably further removed from its source than, say, Shakespeare’s Lear is from the earlier King Leir. The White Devil appears from time to time in Glitterland, in fragments of blank verse, the odd phrase, and a few set speeches, again in fragmentary form. It seemed to me (but I don’t know Webster’s play intimately enough to be certain) that Squires’s characters break into early modern speech whenever they’re on camera, or in a press conference, or in some other public forum, although they’re always likely to slip out of Webster and into contemporary vernacular. That opens up levels of theatricality inside the play’s world, where the language of old stage pretence is mobilized to fuel new political or media pretence, existing alongside lyrics of pop songs and the songs themselves as similarly un-real forms of expression that yet claim to transport an authentic message — nowhere is this more clear than when Ciano breaks into a smooth Al Green rendition right in the middle of a haltingly delivered press statement.

That’s all very clever, and formally quite pleasing. But it leaves the outer shell of the play, and of the performance, untouched: all these forms and levels of theatricality, of pretence, of artful character- and fiction-making are contained within the larger character- and fiction-generating machine of Show 4 itself, and that machine is allowed to run on unencumbered.

Now, I saw this production with a couple of family members, and our conversations afterwards made me realize how oddly I think and talk about these things. I have barely said a word about what Glitterland is about, what it tries to do or say, what its themes and concerns are — what, in other words, the point of the show seems to be. (For fairly comprehensive summaries, read this and this.) That’s where my family went straight away, and I didn’t have an especially good answer, or at least not one that didn’t immediately make the play sound like a terribly trivial exercise: it’s about the relationship between power and the media; it’s about drugs and power, and power as a drug (not my idea, that one, though as likely to be on the mark as anything I’ve come up with); it’s about power and gender; it’s about power. In Show 4’s defence, I’d say that asking what a play’s point is nearly always results in a trivial answer. Plays aren’t all that good at making points; they’re generally better at asking questions, shifting grounds, unsettling certainties. So perhaps a better thing to ask of Glitterland might be if it raises interesting or compelling questions, or if it is unsettling in a surprising way. I’m not sure it does, or is. But I do think its theatrical treatment of relatively well-rehearsed questions and troubles is powerful. Which is to say that this is a play, and a production, that is considerably more interesting for how it does what it does than for what it seems to be saying. I don’t have a problem with that. Give me formal appeal over thematic interest any day.

But there is one thematic point that bothers me, so I’ll end with that. One significant topic in Glitterland is gender. There’s Nadia Albina’s gender-ambiguous Monty; there’s Ciano’s daughter GeeGee, the lone woman at the all-male council table, who is not allowed to cast a vote expressly because she’s not a man, and who spends much of the play trying to claim a man’s power; there’s Katherine Pearce’s Victoria, used and victimized by all the men around here (her brother, Nemo; her director, Monty; her head of state and lover, Ciano); there’s the most puzzling figure in the entire production, the mysterious woman with bright red hair played by Adelle Leonce and billed as “Conjuror” (in Webster’s play, there is a conjuror who appears once and shows Brachiano, the Ciano figure in The White Devil the deaths of his estranged wife and his lover’s husband in dumbshows; in Glitterland, the red-haired woman haunts Nemo and seems to run a particularly powerful drug den, which is located behind the same upstage doors through which we see Isabelle and Milo die — so there is some loose connection between the Webster character and Squires’s figure, but that’s about all I could say). And there are the tabs everyone keeps popping, the apparently highly addictive “high-flying Iris.” But with the exception of that mystery woman (and possibly the Iris), all the female characters are in one way or another oppressed. GeeGee battles that oppression with the greatest success, in that she appears to grab power in the last seconds of the show, but her path to the top runs mostly behind the scenes — she’s offstage for much of Act II. That’s not, somewhat strikingly, what happens in Webster’s 1612 play. There, we not only get women who work together to rid themselves of male oppressors (with limited success, but at least they take action), we also get one of the great female characters of Western dramatic literature in Vittoria — a character who can hold her monologging own against any man in the play, and practically wrests control of her show trial away from her male persecutors. Victoria in Glitterland doesn’t get any such opportunities. She’s allowed to deliver a few lines from (I think) Vittoria’s courtroom speech as a screen test of sorts at the very beginning of the play, but she has no power to take over her trial — her relatively ineffectual attempt to do so fizzles.

Obviously, this is no accident, but I can’t quite figure out what the point might be. Surely it can’t be that Glitterland is trying to say that our modern media landscape suppresses women’s voices even more effectively than seventeenth-century patriarchy did? And even if that is the (debatable) point, why make it by reducing the stage power of a female character? Webster’s Vittoria also doesn’t win. But she’s mighty impressive, on stage, while she tries. There’s no need to be falsely triumphalist and suggest that theatrical power means real power, but what is gained, theatrically or politically, by deliberately reducing the impact and weight of a major female role? For all its evident political commitment, and despite the fact that this is a show written and directed by women, curtailing Vittoria’s agency quite so severely in her transformation into Victoria struck me as a pretty troubling choice.

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