Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company first performed Anglian Mist in a site-specific, immersive performance on Orford Ness itself in June. Written by Tim Lane and Cordelia Spence, who also directs, the play’s theme is the mysterious military intelligence operations which took place on the Ness in the 1970s, although the plot’s key premise (a Death Ray) owes more to Orford Ness’s intelligence contributions between the two world wars, celebrated as the birthplace of radar. By the 1970s, the teams at Orford Ness were actually involved in nuclear projects: all secret work finally finished in 1987, closing an exciting chapter of highly sensitive military research on this lonely East Anglian marsh which first began as early as 1913. The dramatic installation has left to tour: its structure and sense of place feel vague on stage, perhaps an unintended consequence of leaving its original setting.
We meet our heroine, Anna Rees (Adrienne Grant), in two timeframes simultaneously: her past, as a young MI6 agent in the 1970s, in which she approaches and recruits the Russian agent Yevgeny Markovich (Russell J. Turner); and the present, in which she is being pestered by emotionally fragile young conspiracy theorist Valentine Scarrow (Matthew Barnes) for answers. A simple set holds a desk and telephone, and two large radar screens on wheels (which, confusingly, are never actually integrated in the action, though one spins round to reveal Valentine’s delusional theories linked by rambling red ribbon), while postcard-like photographs with date captions are projected onto the rear wall. Sadly, at the Fisher Theatre, the projections landed on a dark, folded rear curtain which meant they were almost impossible to discern, but the scenes clearly delineate themselves in any case into pub, office, interrogation room, hospital and Russian street.
The play’s most successful and interesting scenes are when the present and past collide simultaneously in doubled exchanges: Anna sits at a pub table between the two men, holding conversations thirty years apart. Here, pace is well maintained, and Grant successfully switches her body language between the arrogance of youth and the disillusioned exhaustion of old age. Questions from Markovich and Scarrow initially provoke our own questions: what really happened? Who was Markovich and what did he mean to Anna? However, as the play unwinds, a bigger question begins to tug away: do we care?
A script groaning in clichés (“We’re both mavericks…”) and a plot which takes the obvious way out at every turn (query exploitative sexual relationship, young agent becoming ruthless to seize power, bright boy with mental health issues becomes obsessive about his parentage, etc) soon bores, and by the time the double and triple crossings begin to mount up – and they are stacked up like a supermarket trolley by the end – our attention is only grudgingly given, if it hasn’t already wandered off. A couple of stupendously self-indulgent, over-extended fight scenes don’t help. Barnes’ muted, limp-wristed, sweaty-academic Scarrow doesn’t fire the imagination, nor is his mental disintegration handled with any realism; Turner tries manfully to convey the international man of mystery, but is most convincing in his initial guise of birdwatcher; and though Grant stokes her natural charisma for all it’s worth, the script itself makes Anna wooden, constantly raking over her inner life in puerile cod-psychology which steadily deflated any sympathy I might have found for her. Token feminist angles are dragged in once or twice without logic, let alone narrative relevance, and most problematically there’s only imaginary chemistry between Anna and Markovich. In Markovich, however, Spence and Lane stumble on something genuinely interesting: blink and you’ll miss it, but when Markovitch describes his attitude to England, the country that “took me in? …We were treated with hostility and suspicion at every turn,” we get an unnerving crackle of why boys in Bradford today might build bombs in their suburban bedrooms. The finest dramatic contribution of the evening undoubtedly comes from Section, a largely disembodied voice over the telephone who eventually reveals himself in person to Scarrow in a scene which finally channels the romantic, melancholic and intelligent touch of John le Carré you suspect they were vainly aiming at all along, though it can’t save the whole piece, and in any case comes too late.
It may well have worked much better in the unnerving, intriguing surroundings of Orford Ness itself, but the overblown conspiracy theorising, clumsy stagecraft and tenuous plot, via an eye-poppingly awkward script, end up making a very long evening.