Rhythm in Theatre (A review of ‘The Secret Agent’ at Northern Stage)

Rhythm in ‘The Secret Agent’

It was haunting. A blue spotlight and a limber woman in a floating dress, was all Theatre O needed to create a highly disturbing image. It was the image of a woman slowly drowning; bumping gently against the sea bed as she sank. An image that not only froze the audience together, in one moment, but must have stuck with them long after the performance was over. Unfortunately it came near the end of a horribly clumsy interpretation of Conrad’s novella: ‘The Secret Agent.’

‘The Secret Agent’ was an hour and a half crammed full of theatrical techniques and styles. It is rare, even in theatre, for a creative piece to be overly intense. That it managed to maintain visual beauty, completely out of sync with its dull wording, was the most frustrating thing about it. It was like watching an episode of ‘You’ve Been Framed’ and having to press the mute button because Harry Hill’s voice is so annoying. I wish I could have muted most of the play, taken a step back and just observed the action.

The play’s most impressive feature, and the only thing that held it together, was the rhythm of the images it presented. There were a range of methods used, including dance, animation and absurdist scenes. Whatever the technique, the aesthetics throughout were photographic. Even before the play began; an attempt to entice the audience was made by leaving a single antique armchair centre stage and pouring in smoke. The music played over this opening was the first marker of the rhythm of the piece.

The careful movements of the actors, as well as their painted faces, were reminiscent of a mime artist. Perhaps they should have considered producing the play as a mime, as it was the addition of meandering layers of monologue and awkward dialogue, which spoilt the stunning visuals and their rhythm. Meanwhile the action of the characters was choreographed into a steady beat. The actors moved and re-organised the stage like dancers. However Theatre O and writer Matthew Hurt seem to have completely ignored the rhythms that are inherent to speech. If the character’s mouths had matched their bodies, it would have made the play much more effective.

Since ancient times speech in drama has been able to move as rhythmically as any of Theatre O’s actors. Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter because it mimicked the natural rhythm in human speech. More recently Dylan Thomas wrote his radio play ‘Under Milk Wood’ entirely in verse to remind people that the world was still beautiful even when it also contained nuclear bombs. This respect for the effect of words could have greatly improved Theatre O’s effort.

Even modernist writers like Carol Churchill, who prunes her dialogue write down to the basics, still maintain rhythm of speech in their plays. The curt, often one-word exchanges between her characters results in a rhythm that is quickly passed back and forth across the stage. In contrast Theatre O just kept piling in more dialogue until its meaning was incomprehensible. Their theme of terrorism was buried somewhere amongst Verloc’s endless speeches.

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