Dawn King’s new play, Ciphers, is an appropriately slick offering set in the murky realm of spies, intelligence services and double-dealing. Everything about the play contributes to our sense of unease and confusion, building up a convincing picture of a world built on illusion and deception: the fact that each of the four actors doubles up as someone else (for you can never tell who’s on whose side in the world of espionage); the set is composed of screens that slide across the stage in place of scene changes, allowing characters to quickly appear and disappear; and the play’s non-linear structure continually keeps us guessing.
Gráinne Keenan plays sisters Justine and Kerry, the former recruited as a spy for her language skills, and the latter her sister who launches her own investigation when Justine is found dead in mysterious circumstances. Ronny Jhutti plays Kai, an artist whom Justine falls for, and Kareem, the youth-worker Justine is handling and tapping for information. Then there’s Shereen Martin doubling-up as Justine’s enigmatic boss, Sunita, and as Anoushka, Kai’s glamorous, wealthy wife. Bruce Alexander completes the quartet as Justine and Kerry’s father and a dangerous Russian diplomat.
Keenan gives a strong performance as Justine/Kerry, convincing as both the nervous new recruit who has to become the ‘invisible woman’, and as the determined yet flaky sister. Shereen Martin is particularly good in two tricky roles that could easily have descended into cliché: she manages to imbue Anoushka with a fragility beneath an icy exterior, and her Sunita is frighteningly distant and inscrutable. Ronny Jhutti, however, is not compelling in either of his roles, and is particularly over-the-top as artist Kai.
The first half of Ciphers passes as swiftly as a thriller as we are taken through quick scene changes, introduced to the various characters at speed and generally bewildered as we are submerged in a world where deceit and anonymity are the most valuable commodities. In the second half, however, the romantic relationship between Justine and Kai comes to the fore, and this is where Ciphers begins to unravel. Instead of pursuing the original story – an investigation into Justine’s mysterious death – writer Dawn King switches her focus to an examination of the life of a spy, and how much sacrifice it demands. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself – it’s an important question that out to be asked – but when the central conceit of the play is that the characters are ciphers whom we are not permitted to get to know, then this attempt to explore their emotional lives is doomed to fail.
There is a lot to admire about Ciphers, and there is much about it that is very intelligent, in both the writing and the construction. It raises interesting questions about us as humans: what might we be capable of; how much we can ever really know each other; how much do we even know ourselves; how much of who we are is an artificial construct, constantly changing to fit our changing circumstances? It’s a chilling picture of our society as one that is cold, removed, and anonymous, built on deceit, with everyone lying to everyone else, whatever their relationship to each other.
The ending is perhaps the biggest disappointment of all: the revelation about how Justine died is both trite and hard to believe. Moreover, in a play about smoke-and-mirrors, in which nothing is ever as it seems, surely it would have been more satisfying to have left us in the dark, for it is King’s assertion that that is where we are.