MAYER WAKEFIELD is mesmerised by a glorious production laced with foreboding and unsettling contemporary reference
The Secret Theatre: The Dark Arts of Elizabeth’s Spymaster The Globe London SE1 5/5
IN her programme notes for Anders Lustgarten’s latest play, the departing artistic director of The Globe, Emma Rice, describes The Secret Theatre as “perfect for our unique Jacobean playhouse” and amazingly that turns out to be something of an understatement.
An overtly political writer, whose recent works have ranged in subject matter from Caravaggio to the refugee crisis, Lustgarten here homes in on Elizabeth I’s (Tara Fitzgerald) surveillance state and her poisonous relationship with its chief architect, Sir Francis Walsingham (Aidan McArdle).
With a desire to collate information on all the state’s enemies from “Axminster to Winchester” and far across Europe, the ruthless Walsingham rose from relative obscurity to become Elizabeth’s chief spymaster — using espionage, torture and murder at every possible turn.
Exaggerating threats from abroad and stirring up nationalistic fervour, he encourages Elizabeth to rule by “fear, spectacle and knowledge” — textbook stuff for certain modern politicians.
In a time when “relations with Europe are not what they were,” he encourages war (“albeit a small one”) with the Netherlands to “suffice” for the Queen’s security, but more like his tenuous position.
As the conflict spirals out of control but is eventually won, a weak Walsingham stumbles towards his downfall, losing the love of his only daughter and a significant personal fortune, until he is finally undone by the surveillance methods he places so much faith in.
Staged in the majestic, candle-lit confines of the Wannamaker Playhouse, the gripping writing is backed up by a magnificent production, whose elements all provoke awe.
Jon Bausor’s design is flawless — from the incredible period costumes and shadowy lighting to an intricate set which beautifully underpins the often gruesome tension throughout.
Matthew Dunster’s direction of a splendid, 10-strong cast is nothing short of masterful. One particular scene demonstrating the fluctuating fortunes of British forces during the war, using just scrolls and the ensemble, is mesmerising. The same can be said for many others. Although somewhat loose with the historical facts, Lustgarten has cooked up a thrilling exploration into the Elizabethan state which has untold parallels with the modern surveillance state.
Punctuated throughout by a wicked, witty humour, this is a show which poses equally prescient questions about both the past and the present. Go see.