Tara Fitzgerald and Aidan McArdle
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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.

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. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist