The star-rating system is inevitably a crude one and perhaps never more so than in the case of a production fluctuates between the sublime and the ridiculous. No one star rating could not accurately convey how Dawn King’s new play left me feeling, but if I were to garland it with stars, I would bestow four stars to the opening half of the production, but only two to the play’s second half.
The first half of King’s espionage thriller, about the mysterious and untimely demise of a double agent, was pretty uncomplicatedly enjoyable and Blanche McIntyre’s production was impressive for its visual slickness. Had the script been put on television, it would have been less remarkable as the scene changes, genre tropes and characters are all much more familiar to that medium. However, seeing it on stage made the commonplace seem special. Indeed, it did more than that, as it almost made me want to start watching television again or at least to return to the gooey bosom of a Jonathan Creek box set.
From a strong cast, Shereen Martin was particularly faultless in her performance as two diverse but equally inscrutable characters, one an MI5 boss and the other a rich somebody in the art world. In the hands of another performer, both characters could have morphed too easily into the tight-lipped parody of an 80s Power Woman, something the MI5 boss proves she is not by frequently conceding to give the time of day – or even a job and bereavement advice – to losers . As it was, the characters were both convincing because of their Sphinxy subtleties and the ease at which Martin’s terribly sexy elocution fluttered out. In a play about double agents, it was with Martin, and the two characters she played, that the slimy part of the riddle lay and her performance – along with those of her fellow cast members – elevated what was, at best, a fairly pedestrian storyline as far as the spy genre is concerned.
As a play Ciphers doesn’t fully succeed because of its chosen genre. There have been so many great murder mysteries and spy thrillers. The bar, in a way, is set that much higher than it is in other genres. You need to be a very adept writer to avoid cliché or datedness. In the first half, this did not matter so much, as most of the narrative was based around the accumulation of information about the main character, Gráinne Keenan’s Justine – who we know from early on ends up dead – in anticipation of the big Final Twist. But in the second half, the narrative flounders and also becomes pretty untenable – for instance, would a low-level employee, ostensibly a translator, who screwed up the handling of a potential Islamic terror cell, be sent to infiltrate the Russian Embassy? Why not downsize her to a regional office in Lord Howell’s Desolate North or actually send her to Russia?
Not even the capable performances of the cast could save it at this point. The original sense of sleekness went out with a bang (literally) during a sex scene that made a good supporting argument for the introduction of a stage version of the Bad Sex award. It wasn’t just that the Russian diplomat humped with a lumbering gait last owned by January in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale – luckily, in that piece of poetry, the reader is only privy to the news of how he ‘labour’d to the dawning day’, rather than the grimy visual reality. It was that King chose not to share in the Merchant’s belief that ‘What next ensued beseems not me to say’, an attitude towards the depiction of sex that many wise writers share, or at least lay some claim to by opting for suggestion of ‘what comes next’ or ‘what just was’ rather than depicting some bad dry humping.
Aside from the ick factor, the crassness of the scene actually lay in it being a determinedly clumsy metaphor for the what was happening to the main character in her career. Which is to say, ahem, that both the Russians and the British were screwing her up the arse. With the plot that already felt over-simplified, it seemed unnecessary for this metaphor to have to be brought to life as well.
It’s a shame that Ciphers goes downhill so dramatically in the second half, because it started so well, showing more promise than half a secondary school.