Ciphers Bush Theatre

Following the unanimous success of Papatango Prize-winning play, Foxfinder, in 2011, playwright Dawn King returns with Ciphers, a jigsaw-puzzle-like tale of espionage and deception, currently playing at the Bush Theatre. In her exploration of professional deceit, King nudges at the irony of the theatre itself sharing common traits, with each actor doubling roles – most impressively with Gráinne Keenan playing newly-recruited spy, Justine, and her sister, Kerry. As Kerry fights to uncover the mysterious circumstances in which Justine died, this fluidity of identity and King’s tangled, non-linear structure, leaves the audience to play detective in deciphering what happened, how, when and why.

King is paired once again with director, Blanche McIntyre, regularly hailed as the next big thing, but who offers a disappointingly inconsistent production.  And, despite the huge public intrigue surrounding the secret services, Ciphers fails to recreate the tension and fast pace of the many spy thrillers which frequent the large and small screens. The production uses large white screens which traverse the stage to demarcate new scenes, allowing actors to seamlessly appear or disappear behind them. These flourishes underscore King’s exploration of deceit, anonymity and not quite believing what you see, however, McIntyre fails to build upon, or even sustain, the metaphor as the play goes on. And instead, most likely prompted by the logistical challenges presented by King choosing numerous settings for the play, this fleetingly impressive directorial sleight-of-hand soon gives way to functional, often clumsy, changes of set and costume, which undermine the conventions of the on-stage world McIntyre initially sought to establish, making this play about identity feel as though its own identity was in question.

On a more human level, it was difficult to emotionally invest in King’s often two-dimensional characters. Of course, the very title of the play would suggest that King intends her characters to be unknowable; nonetheless, while it’s all well and good to seek to illustrate a point, these thinly drawn figures resulted in Ciphers feeling long (despite its running time of under two hours including interval) and without heart.

Moreover, King’s characters were often stereotyped on the basis of race, nationality, class, age and gender: for example, it was dishearteningly unsurprising to see, white, middle-class Justine interviewing  the Muslim youth-worker Kareem (Ronny Jhutti) about his suspected involvement with religious extremism, having been picked up at the airport on his way home from Pakistan. Equally, Anoushka and Sunita (Shereen Martin), both successful business women, were without warmth, as is often found to be the case in popular culture and the media when depicting women who leave the domestic sphere, and do well out of it. Later scenes come uncomfortably close to slut-shaming, with the play’s somewhat confusing and implausible final twist meaning the audience could be forgiven for thinking that Ciphers was less about the huge governmental forces at work all around us and more about two women’s dispute over a man. Where, arguably, theatre aims to explore and undermine our current cultural values and inequities, the perpetuation of these values served as an example of how, on the whole Ciphers, didn’t seem to broach any new ground – begging the question of what it really asked of its audience or sought to bring to light.

Given these issues, it would be wrong to say that Ciphers is without merit: many scenes are deftly written and pulling the story’s many complex threads together was surely no mean feat for King. There are some great moments, such as the sharp verbal exchange between Sunita and Justine in the opening scene, which really strike a chord with the young, jobless generation, since Justine interviews for the secret services less because she feels it’s her calling, but rather because she’s been out of work for a few months, started to get desperate, saw the ad in the paper and applied.

Like its lead character, Justine, who is at one point told, “there is nothing very distinctive about you at all”, Ciphers does not manage to stand out from the crowd, and while the play is thought-provoking and boasts a talented cast, I would be guilty of deceit myself if I were to say that this play of double crossing and deception is one not to be missed.

Ciphers is playing at the Bush Theatre until 8 February. For more information and tickets, see Bush Theatre.