JOYCE MCMILLAN on CIPHERS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 13.11.13.

4 stars ****

IN ANY STATE, the security services are the living embodiment of the idea that ends justify means. In order to protect us from evil, they do evil; they lie, cheat, blackmail, adopt false identities, breach basic rules of privacy, and sometimes – as we have learned in recent months – indulge in straightforward sexual deception and abuse. Dawn King’s new play Ciphers – written by one of the rising stars of English playwriting, co-produced by Out Of Joint, the Bush Theatre and Exeter Northcott, and playing at the Traverse until Saturday – is a fast-moving psychological thriller about a woman MI5 agent called Justine, ever more deeply entangled in this world of shifting identities and routine falsehood. The story revolves around her sister Kerry’s angry quest for justice and openness after Justine’s sudden death, apparently from an overdose; and it’s difficult to imagine a more timely subject for a contemporary drama, particularly since the play is partly inspired by the true story of MI6 employee Gareth Williams, found dead in his flat in 2010 under mysterious circumstances.

On a set of fast-moving translucent screens designed by James Perkins, Blanche McIntyre’s production takes King’s high-energy television-paced script for four actors, full of short jump-cut scenes and time-shifts, and transforms it into an impressively fluent and dynamic piece of theatre, only occasionally disrupted by sudden fades to black. And if the narrative style is televisual, the heart of King’s drama lies in the profoundly theatrical device of having both sisters played by the same performer, the wonderful Grainne Keenan; in a play that relentlessly exposes the extent to which life itself – love, hate, desire, friendship, identity, personality, family, even work – becomes increasingly meaningless, when people consciously enter into a world of ever-shifting false appearances, and gradually lose all contact with the sharp and beautiful tang of truth.


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