Tag Archives: Aidan McArdle

“The Secret Theatre” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Running in repertory with the excellent Romantics Anonymous, this new play by Anders Lustgarten is a similarly accessible affair, with an emphasis on entertainment. Everyone loves a bit of Tudor history and this story of spymaster Francis Walsingham, impeccably performed by Aidan McArdle, delivers plenty of it. While the famed intelligencer comes to find himself trapped by “too many stories” – from the Babington plot, to the Spanish Armada – Lustgarten condenses the happenings expertly, and the exciting intrigue is perfectly marshalled by director Matthew Dunster.

We get a monarch – Good Queen Bess, of course – none other than Tara Fitzgerald rising to the task with the aid of costumes by Jon Bausor. She appears gloriously like a painting at first, in a dress that itself deserves an award. But this is a far cry from the Virgin Queen. Bringing Elizabeth I to the stage must count as the biggest challenge for both writer and performer – and it becomes their biggest achievement. It’s a new take on the queen we can recognise and enjoy: this bullying and foul-mouthed “mad dog” (Lustgarten does swearing on stage very well) is used for dramatic purposes to great effect.

Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle
Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle

Lustgarten has a reputation as a provocative and political writer. His version of Elizabeth might possibly shock if you take his contrary streak too seriously. But the politics, in the form of parallels with our own increasingly surveyed state, are neat and often funny. It’s never subtle, but if you have good point then why not shout about it? Small gripes are the piece’s lack of peril (much of the tension comes from Dunster’s brilliant use of the candlelit venue and composer Alexander Balanescu’s contribution), and that emotion is generally in short supply – although McArdle does his best. But as a spy story the history works as well as you would expect and there are strong turns from espiocrats Burleigh, Pooley and Phelippes played by Ian Redford, Edmund Kingsley and Colin Ryan.

The Secret History is historical fiction that uses the past to tell a new story about our own times. Having done his research, Lustgarten is entitled to play around – and don’t forget that there have been plenty of outlandish theories about Elizabeth. Some of the speculation here is far-fetched, and not all of it is sure-footed: Lady Frances and Sir Philip Sydney have some distinctly modern sensibilities, while a nice try at depicting a working-class perspective isn’t given time to develop. The play escalates into conspiracy theory quickly – but spies are ripe for that and it all works well theatrically. With a nice twist to solidify its thought- provoking ambitions, we are sent home happy and, just maybe, a little wiser about the theatrics behind power.

Until 16 December 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Silver Tassie” at the National Theatre

You are warned before entering the National Theatre’s new show, The Silver Tassie, “contains loud explosions, pyrotechnic effects and gunshots”. They aren’t kidding. Howard Davies’ production really is explosive – all credit to the technical crew and a team of designers – but all the whizz-bang effects can’t distract from the conclusion that it’s a tricky evening out.

Sean O’Casey’s play about World War I is famously difficult to stage. Though the story of sporting hero and winner of the eponymous trophy Harry Heegan is simple enough – showing his experience of war and then life as a cripple afterwards – the undoubtedly powerful language is complex and the influence Expressionist. I suspect it reads better on the page than it could possibly be delivered on stage.

And the hugely experienced director Davies, who I normally admire so much, does little to aid the delivery of O’Casey’s poetry. The cast seems lost on stage, struggling to fill the space no matter how dynamic the language. There seems little chance to form a connection with the characters. And as for the second act…

On the battlefield Davies uses noise, lights and explosions in an attempt to create a frightening, surreal world. It’s an honest attempt to deal with O’Casey’s experimentation. Unfortunately the action is incomprehensible and alienating. Theatregoers know war and song can go hand and hand (the recent revival of Oh! What a Lovely War makes an uncomfortable contrast with this show) but here, despite Stephen Warbeck being on board for the music, the results seem pretentious and almost farcical. Placing an emphasis on singing, surely it would have been wise to cast some strong vocalists?

THE SILVER TASSIE national theatre
Ronan Raftery

Should you decided to return after the interval, and I am sure many will not, you will be rewarded as the play returns to realism. There’s a fine performance from in the lead role. Now in a wheelchair and full of fury, Ronan Raftery is commanding and dedicated. There’s also strong acting from Harry’s former fiancée, played by Deirdre Mullins, and a fine double act from comedy commentators Sylvester and Simon (Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy). But the script deliberately lacks coherence and Davies embraces this flaw. Without those explosions to keep you awake this is just a confusing bore.

Until 3 July 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 24 April 2014 for The London Magazine