The Secret Theatre: to what extent should we suspend liberty in return for security?

The key to reading between the lines of Anders Lustgarten’s play is easily to be found in post 9/11 news stories.

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A new play about the origins of the craft of espionage is, appropriately, a double agent. Although set in 1580, as Elizabeth I’s spymasters try to prevent her assassination and a Spanish naval invasion, Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre clearly aims to put on the rack a host of contemporary players – MI5/6, the CIA, the NSA – in what has come to be known as the “security state”.

An epigraph to the published text roots the title in John le Carré’s observation: “Espionage is the secret theatre of our society.” In tune with le Carré’s most recent novels, The Secret Theatre questions to what extent society should suspend liberty and ethics in return for promising people a security that is probably illusory.

Dramatising the pursuit by the proto-007s Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir William Cecil of the recusant Catholics and Spaniards feared to be plotting to reverse the English Reformation, Lustgarten entertainingly shows the birth of codes and ciphers. But the key to reading between the lines of his script is easily to be found in post 9/11 news stories.

Tara Fitzgerald’s familiarly chalk-faced but unexpectedly potty-mouthed Elizabeth (the inhabitants of the Low Countries are “tall stringy Dutch fuckers”) twice confronts Aidan McArdle’s twitchily obsequious Walsingham over his demands for more state cash to fund spy networks, surveillance and wars.

Having thrown out her footwear after his uncovering of a supposed plot to secrete poison in her shoes, the Queen objects that none of the threats he uncovers ever seems to come to anything. In a punchy mock-period speech, her king of snitches replies: “Merely because a plot does not succeed does not gainsay our work against it. Indeed, it is oft on account of our precautions that it does not succeed.”

Although Walsingham is unable to wave a dodgy dossier sourced on the web, versions of this conversation have frequently taken place in leaders’ offices, oval or other-shaped, many times in recent years, with politicians perhaps wishing for a rejoinder as powerful as Elizabeth’s: “You claim your kind of knowledge makes us safer, but… all it serves is to make us more afraid, and drive us further into your arms.”

Theatregoers who had submitted to a search of bags that then had to be stowed in cloakrooms because of London’s current terror alert might object that either the dramatist is downplaying the risk or the theatre security department is exaggerating it. Lustgarten deals with this objection in a terrifying scene in which a captured Jesuit priest is interrogated on the rack, warning Walsingham: “Don’t you know you’re our finest recruiter?… After every martydrom, our numbers soar.”

A suggestion that the attempt to prevent terrorism risks perpetuating it has a familiar feel this winter. It might have been disastrous for Lustgarten to follow so closely Ronan Bennett’s BBC One three-parter Gunpowder. It isn’t because the two writers have neatly divided between them the Elizabethan and Jacobite wars against terror. Indeed, the two shows make an instructive double bill. Ian Redford, as Elizabeth I’s oilily paranoid spymaster Sir William Cecil smoothly gives way to Mark Gatiss as Sir Robert Cecil, the psychotically oily second generation of a family who anticipated by four centuries le Carré’s idea of British spooks as “the firm”.

Lustgarten came to notice with a polemical contemporary play – If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep (2013), about out-of-control bankers – but, in last year’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, used a double time scheme, moving between Caravaggio’s Naples in 1606 and a present-day Bootle food bank. In what Tony Blair (who is an explicit or implicit villain in much of Lustgarten’s work) might call a third way, The Secret Theatre, though set entirely in the past, speaks to the present. As Walsingham and Cecil’s successors seek ever greater powers of surveillance, it also gestures to the future. With its murky, furtive subject beautifully suiting candlelit staging at Shakespeare’s Globe, the play casts long shadows.

The Secret Theatre” runs until 16 December

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world