Joseph Conrad’s 1907 book The Secret Agent depicts the events surrounding Adolf Verloc’s botched attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in London. Verloc, the secret agent in the title, has infiltrated an anarchist cell and sells their secrets to the foreign embassy of an unnamed country. All is going well until Vladamir, the first secretary of this government embassy, convinces Verloc to make the attack in order to extinguish public sympathies with anarchism and instil fear in the community: “they need to be scared.”
The modern parallels of this story with the West’s current ‘war on terror’ make this a timely moment for a stage reworking. Indeed there is great potential to re-voice Conrad’s story as a comment on the use of fear by our media and governments today. It is a shame that this stage adaption, directed by Joseph Alford of the Theatre O company, does not stand up to the high standards set by Conrad’s original book. It almost completely misses the mark.
The play seems less concerned with the story and more concerned with creating a spectacle. The shadowy, atmospheric staging creates a backdrop of intrigue and mystery but the weak and almost anonymous characters seem to get lost within all the artificial smoke and dim lighting. Though the choreography and the clever use of the props in the play did provide brief entertainment, there is something tiring in the way that no one can move a chair without making such a fuss.
Although Alford’s stage adaptation seemed intentionally theatrical, bizarre and playful, I felt that it occasionally overstepped the mark and edged dangerously into pantomime territory. The accents, at points, were questionable and some of the acting seemed rather too melodramatic. After some frankly unnecessary audience participation in which members of the audience were invited on stage to sit and eat biscuits, a group behind me decided they had enough and left. At this point I was ready to leave with them. The whole thing left me feeling rather uneasy and uncomfortable.
Despite its flaws the play was enjoyable and there were some impressive individual moments. It was at its best when it stuck to Conrad’s original story. But this begs the question, why make a stage adaption that is nowhere near as good as the original story?