Literary adaptations for the stage can be tough. The audience comes with dual expectations: for the production to remain faithful to and do justice to the original text, but also for the text to be made new, innovatively remastered to justify presenting it on stage. The difficulty becomes even greater with something like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, not so well-known that everyone in the audience can be expected to know the story, but from a writer well-respected enough to pile the stakes high. Theatre O’s adaptation of Conrad’s novel, playing to packed houses at the Young Vic, strikes the balance well. The bare bones of the story remain undefiled, but are seen in a fresh new way, in keeping with Theatre O’s tagline: “the world through another lens”.
The play begins unexpectedly with a bizarre, exaggerated movement sequence, well co-ordinated by Eva Vilamitjana. This sets the tone for the rest of the piece: vignettes of scenes are surrounded by these surreal movement sequences, in combination with atmospheric music and sound by Gareth Fry, and often involving the production’s generous endowment of period furniture, in a beautifully designed set by Simon Daw. In these sequences, and throughout the show, we see multiple elements of the production working together in harmony, creating some wonderfully effective moments from the talented devisers and performers, who all seem proficient in powerful physical theatre.
Under the direction of Joseph Alford, the production focuses on the creation of strong images: gestures are held unnaturally long, often highlighted with great use of spotlights and an innovative lighting design by Anna Watson. This is particularly visible in the case of Carolina Valdés, co-artistic director of Theatre O. She also has a strong physical presence, conveying strange body language with conviction. At one point her grief at the loss of her brother Stevie is conveyed through her almost comic inability to remove her hands from her face. The power of this image does not distract from the drama of the moment, but rather complements and accentuates it. Characters are distinct and well-defined, shown by the stark polarity of Leander Deeny’s two characters: the shy, stammering Stevie and the eccentric and expletive-ridden Vladimir.
There are times when the complex, non-linear narrative of the novel becomes somewhat abstracted and difficult to follow; but these moments are few and far between, and the overall beauty and power of the production makes up for it. One also might hope, in a story about espionage, terrorism and the desperate lives of the poor, that it had a more political side or more modern relevance. It seems like an attempt is made at the beginning, with a scene in which six members of the audience are invited on stage, and a lengthy discussion of fear and terrorism. Yet this does not continue, and remains a slightly anomalous moment. However, the intention to focus on the human emotion and tragedy of the original novel is clear, and the production is very successful with this intent. This is a powerful, well-executed and unique rendering of Conrad’s novel.
The Secret Agent is playing at the Young Vic until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.