Review: Secret Theatre – Show 4, Lyric Hammersmith ✭✭✭✭

How does one go about reviewing a show that’s a secret? Reviewers have chosen several different paths with the Lyric’s Secret Theatre season, from writing cryptic reviews that avoid mentioning anything that gives the game away, to simply reviewing as normal and hoping for the best. This review comes with a capitalised, emboldened and even italicised, SPOILER ALERT. That should do.

Show 4 is Hayley Squires’ Glitterland, a dark, dystopian thriller based on John Webster’s classic Jacobean gore-fest The White Devil. The land is ruled by Lord Ciano and his panel of seething, plotting, backstabbing ministers, each of whom schemes and manoeuvres in the shadows to manipulate the others in the pursuit of his own ambitions. This rickety, vice-ridden monocracy looks sure to topple sooner or later, and when it comes tumbling down there are buckets of stage blood to be shed.

Squires has invented her own rich dialect for the piece: a mixture of hyper-‘now’ natural, modern phraseology with street-slang twists, and heightened Jacobean prose, with her own interesting and vivid neologisms like “shit-blood mad” thrown in. The actors seize this gift of a script and although sometimes the lyricism steps over into overwhelming density, they deploy every spit-flying threat, insult and barefaced lie with precision and pure Jacobean venom.

The performances are all magnetic, with every character stretched to his or her very limit as the cast gradually raise the stakes sky-high. Hammed Animashaun is a hateful, knuckle-dragging gorilla of a dictator, revelling in the testosterone-glutted power of the alpha male. He also satirises beautifully the manipulation of the public by the ruling elite via the media, with a charismatic, over-the-top public statement following his wife’s murky death. Leo Bill is his vein-popping,

Malcolm Tucker-esque yes-man, who looks close to nervous collapse as he frantically operates all his many puppets. Katherine Pearce glows as the Marilyn Monroe cut-out starlet Victoria, whose pain at the hands of the men in her life is truly affecting, and Nadia Albina steals the show as the self-assured egotistical showman Monty.

As with any good tragedy, the play is often extremely funny, from the petulant teenagerish pouting of its ruling leader, to the running visual gag of characters’ momentary spasmic reactions to the drug-du-jour. But there is still an abundance of touching, well-handled tragedy that explicitly falls harder upon the female characters than on the men in the play.

The play is a clever yet depressing comment that unpleasant seventeenth-century politics and gender roles are still easily translatable not just to the present moment, but to a plausible future. Women are used as disposable pawns in the machinations of the patriarchy, no more than sex objects, political leverage, or used-up litter to the men in charge. Though the play has interesting things to say on the matter of gender, it must be said that presenting this patriarchal vision only reinforces it in real life, no matter how opprobriously it is painted.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 22 March 2014.
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