Review by Carly Fisher
Walking into the Upstairs theatre at the Assembly Roxy, it is refreshing to see a stage dressed with a full set greeting us - a rarity at a fringe festival. Before us is a large oak desk with numerous black office wheely chairs surrounding it, filing cabinets and a large looming digital clock displaying the time and date in 3 cities of the world. Centred is a US seal and over on stage left, a door. It is an effective playing ground for the show we are about to see.
Set in a basement meeting room in the US State Department, Intelligence is a political drama that follows two young Foreign Officers as they work for the week on a secret project led by special envoy, Sarah MacIntyre. Aside from leaving them questioning their views on American and foreign diplomacy, on safety and security and on US involvement overseas, the women also question themselves and their relationships with one another as the week in the basement proves a life altering experience.
The play is intentionally cryptic - I suppose to allude to the idea that we, the audience, do not have the security clearance to have the details. Whilst a clever trope, I must admit, I did find it somewhat frustrating never to find out where the operation was set and whom we were discussing. Though I can understand the intentions behind this - a clever device by the writer to remind us that this negotiation could be with any of too any men from too many countries - I found it hard to steer away from the implications that this would be a Middle Eastern country…and yet, I also felt uncomfortable being forced to make that assumption. Some small hints or details would have been appreciated, particularly as the ‘where’ seemed the secondary plot line behind the impact that action, or lack thereof, could have on the security of a region and on the lives of many. The ambiguity, though intentional, I felt made the ending of the show murky and a show this strong throughout deserved a more definite ending.
All the same, it was refreshing to see a piece of theatre where three women could talk, strategise and essentially work together to try secure a region without the interruption of, help from and direction of any men. It’s been said of this piece that it more than passes the Bechdel-Wallace test and whilst I will admit that that was not the first thought that came to mind whilst watching it, I do agree that it was great to watch a piece of political theatre that managed to achieve this. It is too rare and I hope that this show serves as a calling to more playwrights to write these sorts of pieces for these sorts of characters.
Each of the women is well written, despite still being laced with that same lack of detail, allowing for all three actors to deliver excellent performances. Sarah Street plays the cautious and clever Paige and offers a beautifully layered performance as more of her past seeps through the cracks. Lee is played by Joy Sunday who expertly balances Lee’s hopefulness, professionalism and fear. Rounding out the trio, Laura Jordan takes on the oft misunderstood, career department worker, Sarah MacIntyre and does so with a commanding and yet endearing presence. All three are exceptionally well cast and together achieve a truly impactful and very strong performance.
The tech design, specifically that of the clock, in this production is a stroke of genius from the creative team and its use to help the audience understand the passing of time is well executed and inventive. The sound design by Sinan Zafar is strong throughout and though I am generally not a fan of black outs, the clock again saves the day here as each break in the flow of the production is made to seem deliberate. Congratulations to Carolyn Mraz, Jess Cummings and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew for their collaboration on this design. I thoroughly enjoyed the production elements of the work.
Ultimately, the show asks us to consider who our truth tellers are, how information is acquired, what happens when it falls into the wrong hands, and how much of what happens around the world is truly left up to just human decision - however correct or incorrect it may be. All these messages are well explained and made for an interesting piece of theatre.
Very glad that I snagged a last minute ticket to this one - it would have been a real shame to miss it!!