“The stress is on the second syllable”
In some ways, it might be best to come to Theatre O’s version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent with some fore-knowledge of that classic novel to help guide you through this expressionistic interpretation. But in others, it might be better to know nothing as this adaptation proves sometimes problematic in its marriage of physical theatre with the conventions of narrative storytelling. Devised for the Edinburgh festival ahead of a national tour, and now revised, the show lands at the Young Vic where its delights and frustrations can be sampled over a short run.
The company make their intentions clear from the start, a vaudevillean whirl of stylised Victoriana strikes a bold pose and it isn’t long before there’s audience participation, puppets aplenty and a definite air of parodic comedy. But as the silliness subsides, a clearer sense of Conrad’s story emerges and one is struck by how remarkably prescient his writing from 1907 is to our day and age. His world of insurgent terrorism, dark shadows tearing families apart, is told via the story of Adolf Verloc, a hapless would-be spy given with the onerous task of bombing the Greenwich Observatory.
The main problem with this is that having started off with a light-hearted, almost jovial tone, asking the audience to then take these characters so deadly seriously feels like a big ask and one not necessarily deserved. But as the play winds to its violent climax, it does eventually start to strike a more apposite tone with performances shining through the pandemonium – Helena Lymbery’s Professor a chilling presence, Carolina Valdés’ anguished sister – suggesting the hints of what could have been with a more cohesive approach to the story or the style.