‘I’m quite boring, really,’ confesses our protagonist Justine in her job interview at MI5. And, superficially? She’s not some enigmatic Bond girl. She’s wearing flats and just lost her job in marketing. Her interviewer Sunita has decoded her cover letter in seconds. ‘You applied because you’re out of money and you’re desperate,’ she snaps. Gotcha. ‘Justine’, every graduate in the audience silently sighs, ‘I’ve been there, girl’.
They talk of the banality of evil. In the world of Dawn King’s Ciphers, good is just as banal as evil. In fact, everything is banal. Tonight, the espionage theme is simply a means of expressing how infernally complex are the ordinary dilemmas which face ordinary people in their personal and professional lives.
Minutes after that splendid, opening interview scene, Justine has taken up smoking and wearing leather jackets. Not for the last time, the tables are turned, and she’s now interrogating Sunita about who killed… Justine? Hang on. This, then, must not be Justine at all but her occasionally wayward though loyal sister Kerry. Our sense of time gets shifted as continually as our sense of our characters’ ‘real’ personas. Its cast limited to four, Ciphers makes a virtue of theatre’s old dual role trick – meaning every actor is a double agent of sorts. Grainne Keenan plays, formidably, both spy-heroine Justine and Kerry, who’s questing to find out who killed her sis. Ronny Jhutti is the married artist with whom Justine is having an affair, or, when his hood is up, a disenfranchised Pakistani informant to Justine’s department. Shereen Martine is simultaneously Justine’s M15 senior Sunita and the flouncey wife of the artist with whom Justine is having an affair, while Bruce Alexander is yet another having his end away as an adulterous boss during Justine’s masquerade as a Russian agent. But when he’s hunched over, he’s the sisters’ kindly dad.
Director Blanche McIntyre executes the device intelligently. We don’t so much get distinct characters as characterful amalgams of contradictory identities – linguistic, sexual, and emotional. That’s spying for you. But that’s also normal life. Justine kind of is Kerry, because having an affair is the sort of thing Kerry would do. Kerry cares about her sister, which is the sort of thing Justine would do. The artist and the informant blend into one another because both are rebels lacking purpose.
Panels slide across the stage between scenes, seeming to hack the actors into bits. If all this split personality stuff is beginning to sound rather Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I do think Ciphers has a certain retro colouring. Identical bags are neatly exchanged, Coke cans deftly positioned; you half expect poisoned umbrella tips on Waterloo Bridge. Oh, and there’s a Russian, who is a chauvinist, and he is instrumental in Justine’s unravelling.
Sex is her downfall, as it is everyone’s downfall, of course. How crushingly ordinary, that that should be the ultimate exposer – rather than the facilitator – of duplicitousness. There are great moments when even the characters declare their own bafflement at who’s (sleeping with) who. For us, sitting in this darkened room trying to decrypt what’s going on is a pleasantly frustrating business, particularly in the play’s early stages.
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