In the Wanamaker Playhouse’s candlelit space Jon Bausor’s clever set divulges sinister built-in drawers of files. Conspirators plotting treason discover the hard way that a mole is privy to their plans. Religious refugees fleeing to England in the wake of massacres on the continent find themselves unwelcome in isolationist Britain. Late 16th-century London feels a lot like a John le Carré thriller set right now. And indeed playwright Anders Lustgarten owes his title to le Carré, who wrote “espionage is the secret theatre of our society”.
Lustgarten comes from Hungarian Jewish ancestry via American immigrant parents who brought him up in Oxford. He began writing plays teaching in prison in America and his political activism has led to his arrest on four continents. He has previously written about the plight of refugees and an earlier play about Italian artist Caravaggio moves between 17th-century Italy and 21st-century Britain, so this seems a logical progression.
At the heart of his web of intrigue is a spymaster who would chill Smiley to the marrow. Aidan McCardle’s Sir Francis Walsingham is as addicted to espionage as a teenager to their smartphone – and how he would have loved the modern technology evoked by the programme cover showing Queen Elizabeth I caught on surveillance cameras! Lustgarten’s dark and witty latter-day revenge melodrama nails the parallels to Russian influence, fake news and post truth.
Lines such as "our relations with Europe being not what they were" elicit knowing audience laughter. Brexit divisiveness is neatly echoed by a Chippenham man evoking the solidarity of Wiltshire men, only to be felled by a Swindon man, who points out the rivalry between the two towns.
Walsingham’s chilling tactics include setting up a stool pigeon caught with a gun in Queen Elizabeth’s private gardens to prove the necessity for his surveillance by catching and killing this ‘would be assassin’ on the spot. So Mary Queen of Scots has no chance of surviving his tactics facilitating the Babington plot that leads to Elizabeth sanctioning her execution.
Tara Fitzgerald’s arresting Elizabeth looks every inch the chalk-faced, frizzy Titian-haired, sumptuously-gowned Queen. It’s only when she opens what proves a foul mouth to berate Walsingham that she seems more shrew than monarch – a fun reversal.
Cassie Layton has a memorable cameo as Mary, her brave exit to the block cut short by a bloodcurdling scream. She is also an eloquent Frances Walsingham, estranged from her father by his machinations that lead to the death in battle of her husband Sir Philip Sidney (appealingly noble Sam Marks).
Our Protestant antihero does reveal to his daughter that witnessing the St Bartholomew ‘s Day Massacre in Paris at first hand as he sought to offer Huguenots refuge from murderous Catholics in the English ambassador’s residence first motivated his machinations.
He may gain some sympathy, though ultimately he loses all in this game of thrones. But it’s an exhilarating, if bloody, game while it’s afoot in Matthew Dunster’s fast-moving production.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Marc Brenner
The Secret Theatre runs until Saturday 16 December. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 6.30pm (Sun only), 1pm & 2pm (days vary). £10-£62. Shakespeare's Globe, SE1 9DT. www.shakespearesglobe.com