Can a Tudor history play teach us about surveillance in the 21st century?

History and fiction work together in Anders Lustgarten’s new play — historian John Cooper explores how the past can sometimes tell us more about the age in which we live.

Sam Marks and Edmund Kingsley in rehearsals for The Secret Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2017. Photo by Marc Brenner

The turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is given a new twist by Anders Lustgarten in The Secret Theatre, a modern-day take on a Tudor history play opening at Shakespeare’s Globe this month.

Repulsed by Walsingham’s argument that she should execute Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth is finally persuaded that only the death of her Catholic cousin can bring security to the state.

On stage, Elizabeth personally authorises the warrant for Mary’s execution. In reality, so historians have argued, the death warrant was despatched by her ministers without Elizabeth’s agreement — meaning that the Queen was the last to know when the bells rang in London to celebrate Mary’s death.

Furious at being outmanoeuvred by her own servants, Elizabeth demanded that her court go into mourning for Mary. Was this all for show, a means of distancing Elizabeth from the terrible act of killing a fellow queen?

Sir Francis Walsingham, John de Critz, 1585, National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia

The Secret Theatre is self-consciously a work of fiction, unafraid to depart from the historical record in order to highlight its themes of state surveillance and violence inspired by religion.

But sometimes fiction has the freedom to think in ways that conventional history cannot. Maybe Elizabeth knew all along that Mary’s death warrant would be released, choosing to make her ministers the scapegoats for an execution which sent shockwaves across Europe.

Cassie Layton in rehearsals for The Secret Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2017. Photo by Marc Brenner

Unsettling parallels between past and present are embedded in this play: the justification of torture in the name of national security, popular resentment against immigrants, the power of propaganda to mobilise the public in causes which they may not fully understand.

We are drawn to question where state authority really lies: with rulers and politicians like Walsingham and Cecil, or with functionaries operating in the shadows like the code-breaker Thomas Phelippes and the torturer Richard Topcliffe?

The cast in rehearsals for The Secret Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2017. Photo by Marc Brenner

Fans of the Virgin Queen will encounter a different kind of Elizabeth in The Secret Theatre: as politically astute as we know her to have been, but also calculating, catty, foul-mouthed and vindictive.

Walsingham’s daughter Frances, upset at being publically slighted by the Queen, is warned by her husband Philip Sidney never to turn her back on Elizabeth but rather to watch her ‘as you would a wild dog’.

Queen Elizabeth I, The Darnley Portrait, 1575, National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia

The Secret Theatre invites us to draw comparisons between the world of Elizabethan surveillance and that of our own day.

By quoting John Le Carré, ‘Espionage is the secret theatre of our society’, the play’s title makes a connection between what we watch on stage and what we see when we exit the theatre — a function which, incidentally, the Elizabethan history plays put on at the original Globe Theatre also performed. History may not repeat itself, but people undoubtedly use history in order to interpret the present. Quite how close are the parallels between the sixteenth- and twenty-first centuries, the audience is left to decide.

The Secret Theatre runs from Thursday 16 November to Saturday 16 December 2017 in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The character of Queen Elizabeth, however, makes a shrewd observation about the nature of the security services which her spymaster is urging her to fund. Walsingham argues that the failure of a plot does not lessen the need for constant vigilance: its lack of success is itself proof of the need for his network of agents and informers. Elizabeth retorts that by this logic anything could be a potential plot, and its lack of existence taken as evidence of Walsingham’s ingenuity in defeating it.

If no such exchange is recorded in the State Papers housed in the National Archives, then that should hardly surprise us. Equivalent conversations between the Queen and her security chief, the one questioning the other’s growing empire of agents and constant demands for resources, must surely have taken place. Under what circumstances was it justified to infiltrate a plot so that it gathered momentum and revealed more conspirators?

As The Secret Theatre reminds us, moral questions such as these have not gone away.

Director Matthew Dunster in rehearsals for The Secret Theatre

The above is an edited extract from an essay by John Cooper. Unsettling Parallels, which will be published in full in the theatre programme for The Secret Theatre, on sale from 16 November.

John is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of York and the author of The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I.