A well-produced morality play for the modern age

THEATRE
THE RITUAL SLAUGHTER OF GORGE MASTROMAS
Royal Court | By Xenobe Purvis
Four Stars

PLAYWRIGHT Dennis Kelly creates a morality play for the modern age in The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, his enthralling debut at the Royal Court. Its premise is simple: an affable everyman is offered the opportunity to succeed, a Faustian arrangement which requires him to lie compulsively. His life is transformed from one of honest drudgery to near-psychopathic deception and he begins to rake in the rewards of his moral about turn.

Gorge forges a new identity through a series of ever-greater deceits, and the chorus-like cast wonder aloud if its audience are “sick and disgusted yet?” as he traverses darker levels of amorality. Despite the prods of the chorus, Kelly reserves judgement for others. He splices darkness with comedy in daring juxtaposition and underlines the ease of his everyman’s descent. Gorge feels familiar, and the committed realism of the dialogue highlights this further. It is necessary, this naturalness of speech, yet it can occasionally drag. The cast carry the script brilliantly, however, and lengthy, narrative-driven passages are shared compellingly between them.

Tom Brooke excels as Gorge himself, undergoing a thrilling evolution from underdog to unstoppable tycoon and, finally, festering old man committed to a life of timeless decay. He is supported by six captivating actors, among whom Pippa Haywood crackles with Mephistophelian charisma.

The sprawling scope of the play, which, with a running time of nearly three hours, can feel a little overdone, is tempered by a very simple set and clean direction from Vicky Featherstone. The backdrop of a star-thick night sky quietly evokes questions of predeterminism, while a framed portrait of a lakeside scene later serves to cement the artifice of Gorge’s life before it. This understatement complements the casualness of the dialogue and creates a gentle platform on which a stellar cast can shine.

The questions prompted by Kelly’s script will continue to harangue hours after the theatre empties, and among the quips can be found moments of real tragedy. This production – the official start to Featherstone’s stint as new artistic director of the Royal Court – is certainly one worthy of the time-honoured venue.

THEATRE
THE SECRET AGENT
The Young Vic | By Daniel O’Mahony
Three stars

IN ADAPTING Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel of late Victorian terrorism, Theatre O’s production at the Young Vic cranes for contemporary relevance. Sleeper cells, bombings, state duplicity; its the daily fodder of political and media discourse, and its all there in Conrad’s text.

Adolf Verloc (George Potts) is a bumbling and ineffective anarchist, who happens to be spying on his criminal cronies for the authorities. He arrives for an appointment with his government paymaster Vladimir, played with impressive comic mania by Leander Deeny. The general public aren’t wary enough of the anarchists, says Vladimir – “they need to be scared.”

The contrast between Verloc’s simple-mindedness and Vladimir’s wild fanaticism establishes a high pitch of tension – which is then undone by a needless bout of audience participation. Six people are invited onto the stage to join the meeting. It doesn’t immerse and it doesn’t involve – it simply shatters the theatrical illusion.

There are a few great scenes. It’s genuinely upsetting to watch Verloc’s wife (Carolina Valdes) desperately covering her eyes to avoid the reality of her husband’s deceit. Deeny also excels in the role of Stevie, Verloc’s troubled son-in-law.

Without an interval, the play starts to drag and lose direction. Not every scene can be explosive, but by sticking faithfully to the back-and-forth chronology of Conrad’s novel, the production struggles to uphold suspense.

Overall, it’s an uneven experience. In its brightest moments, though, it’s an accomplished and relevant political thriller, shedding light on the connivance and amorality of the modern security state.