SPOOKS, SECRETS , SEDUCTIONS
If you are, like me, addicted to Spooks on television and to the deeper-rooted psychologies of John le Carré, Dawn King’s new play feeds the same hunger for ambiguity, dangerous secrets and ethical conflict. Nations need intelligence, intelligence requires spies and secrets, but secrets rot people from the inside.
So you have the ingredients for drama, and for intensity. In Blanche McIntyre’s deft and well-honed production from Out of Joint and Exeter Northcott (reaching the end of a good tour) the set is made of sliding screens , the scenes are short and often momentarily baffling, the time-scale leaps backwards and forwards offering skilful clues. And each of the four cast is – without obvious disguise – playing two different people.
Grainne Keenan is Justine – a quiet, efficient redundant marketing assistant who, thanks to her fluent Russian and Japanese, gets a job with MI5. She doubles as Justine’s sister Kerry, who we meet in flash-forward scenes distraught at Justine’s mysterious death. Shereen Martin, dark and assured as a feared headmistress, is both Justine’s MI5 boss and the rich wife of her artist lover. Ronny Jhutti doubles as the boyfriend and, superbly, as a furious young Pakistani youth worker who Justine is made to recruit as an informer. And Bruce Alexander is a lecherous yet fatherly Russian spook and, briefly, the heroine’s grieving but patriotic old Dad.
Complicated? Bear with me, and be assured that it is a tribute to Blanche McIntyre’s direction that you don’t get lost, and that every time the screens slide you are agog to know what – and who – happens next. So as a two-hour entertainment you can’t fault it; and as it went on I found myself happily reflecting that it combined the interest of a TV drama with an extra theatrical layer of meaning conferred by the doubling of characters: so that rather than just considering the corrupting effect of intelligence agencies you think of wider things: uncompromising youthful innocence and crafty age, subtle bullying both emotional and professional, layers of betrayal.
The problem with a cliffhanger-mystery, though, is that you have to resolve it. Unless you’re some really annoying intellectual ambiguist too arrogant to tell stories properly. The author here acknowledges that we need to know: why DID Justine die? Was it really suicide? Once you work for MI5, is anything in your life real? Echoes here of the real life “spy in the bag” case.
And so she does resolve it. And although there is one chilling, horribly credible resolution, it is followed by an odd coda in which the writer seems to be suggesting yet another layer of deceit, but without making it clear enough to satisfy. And that sort of knocks the shine off it. But whether here or in Salisbury, the skill and entertainment of it all is well worth the ticket, and Dawn King (whose Foxfinder won the Papatango prize) is certainly one to watch.