The Secret Agent
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
LIKE MANY other shows in this year’s Traverse programme, Theatre O’s version of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent, first published in 1907, reflects on an act of violence, its causes and its aftermath. Set in Edwardian London, and staged in a version of the satirical Victorian Gothic style that briefly swept through English theatre a few years ago, the show tells the story of an ordinary early-20th-century everyman called Verloc, who finds himself being asked to infiltrate a group of anarchists who are allegedly planning violent incidents on the streets of London. The echoes of the more recent “wars against terrorism” are obvious; and in the final half-hour, when the story darkens into a real tragedy involving Verloc’s troubled wife (brilliantly played by Carolina Valdes) and her vulnerable child-like brother, it develops a dark dramatic energy that gives a fine ironic edge to its use of Edwardian music-hall trickery, and sweet popular love-songs of the period.
Up to that point, though, the show spends a long 75 minutes making a wordy, overwritten meal of the development of the story, slowed down even further by the company’s compulsion to turn every character and incident into a heavily-stylised vaudeville turn. There’s no point in strongly visual forms of theatre that only repeat in imagery and movement what’s already been said in the text; and if ever a production needed a sharp red pencil, more self-discipline, and a tighter focus on the narrative in hand, this ambitious but flawed version of a great novel is that show.