Anders Lustgarten knows how to spin a good yarn. His latest, The Secret Theatre, is a gripping Jacobean spy thriller, every bit as intricately plotted as a Le Carré, that warns of a modern day threat to privacy, human rights and liberty.
This doublet and hose tale of patriotism, propaganda and paranoia, which opened at The Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last night, takes us back to where home security and surveillance began, with the country’s first spymaster, Francis Walsingham.
The Secret Theatre is a precursor to the Gunpowder Plot which occurred just 15 years or so after Lustgarten’s story.
Both deal with the threat that Catholicism – and Spain – posed to the Crown, first Elizabeth I and, later, her successor, James I, and how the state quashed rebellion with an iron fist.
Thank god The Globe hasn’t worked out yet how to successfully stage an Elizabethan execution of hang, draw and quartering a body (unlike the BBC), but a few moments of brutal and bloody torture on a rack is within their expertise.
There are also hangings, blood-lettings and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, so this isn’t a production for the squeamish.
Director Matthew Dunster has conjured up a dark and sinister production – literally. The candlelit playhouse saves on the tapers by lighting and then frequently extinguishing its only form of illumination.
So we’re as much in the dark as the characters as they blunder through the Stygian blackout trying to uncover plots and discern friend or foes.
In some scenes the entire theatre is lit by a single candle which makes it difficult to see what is actually occurring on stage.
It is wonderfully evocative and, in this beautifully constructed, authentically gold-and-black decorated, 16th century repro theatre, it creates a visually stunning tableau.
Into this murky foray of spies and villains steps Tara Fitzgerald’s splendidly foul-mouthed and irascible Queen Elizabeth I, resplendent in a series of truly sumptuous gowns that light up the stage with their vibrancy.
This is no Good Queen Bess, and certainly not, according to Lustgarten, a Virgin Queen, but one who has a penchant for a bit of rough trade and a hatred of Walsingham who is doing his best to save both her and the country.
A lot of what you’ll hear is based on true fact but the playwright weaves fact and fantasy together to create a tense and absorbing thriller.
It occasionally loses its way (as we all did, in the dark) with weak attempts at gallows humour. The comedy characters and cheap gags aren’t needed when the core story is so riveting.
Aiden McArdle as the devious and ruthless Walsingham lives in the shadows and exploits friends, family and even the queen to keep the country on an even keel.
But, a little like Thomas Cromwell before him, he has trade in his background. His great-grandfather was a cobbler and, for whatever reason, the provenance and the man, infuriate Elizabeth.
There some ferociously good confrontation scenes when the pair stand up to each other, her screaming like a banshee and he boldly taking the tongue lashing while remaining resolute.
“I am protecting your state!” he blusters during one face-off.
“Are you? Or are you building one of your own?” demands a suspicious queen.
A senior diplomat but here we see Walsingham as a puppet-master, recruiting spies, placing them in positions of power, gathering information and keeping tabs on everyone, rich or poor.
His only ally is elder statesman and the queen’s closest adviser, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (superbly played by Ian Redford) who encourages his protegee.
As the play progresses it’s unclear who can be trusted to be loyal and who may be a double agent in this tangled web of political intrigue.
Edmund Kinglsey makes an impact as messenger and master spy Robert Pooley while the formidable Abraham Popoola enjoys himself immensely as the sadistic torturer Topcliffe.
During an era of religious tumult and state power-plays The Secret Theatre is a timely reminder of how a few key figures are in a position to manipulate and dictate the future of both us lowly serfs and the country’s grandest courtiers.
The Secret Theatre runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until December 16.
The Secret Theatre
Patriotism, propaganda and paranoia are played out in the shadowy and thrilling tale of spies and intrigue in Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre.