"We are lucky,” says Anders Lustgarten, “that our current authoritarians are very, very s*** at being authoritarian.” The 40-year-old playwright and activist believes Donald Trump would like to impose on America “a sort of corporate authoritarianism” akin to that of Erdogan’s Turkey if he were not “so lazy and incompetent”, and that those outside the wealthy one per cent in the UK were lucky to get the hapless Theresa May as Prime Minister rather than potential rivals who were far more “competent, profoundly malicious, and ruthless”. Neither of these current leaders could hold a candle, he suggests, to the subject of his latest play, Sir Francis Walsingham, who as Elizabeth I’s spymaster effectively invented the surveillance state — and made its people love it.
“The more you dig around in that era, what is interesting is not only the extension of a system of mass surveillance for the first time but also the mythology of the Virgin Queen — Gloriana — which has persisted down the years,” says Lustgarten.
Elizabeth’s reign “also saw the beginnings of capitalism, the beginning of the enclosure movement [of common land], and of mass political dissent. The late Elizabethan era executed more people for political dissent than any other era in British history, per capita.” He grins: “And it’s just a cool period with spies and ruffs and people stabbing each other. Everyone loves that.”
The Secret Theatre — its title comes from John le Carré’s description of espionage — looks at first sight like a departure for Lustgarten. The highly educated son of liberal American academics of Hungarian descent, he grew up all over the world, has been arrested during political protests in four separate continents, and started writing plays while teaching prisoners in San Quentin.
The plays that thrust him into the limelight were agitprop-y contemporary dramas about the BNP (A Day at the Racists, Finborough), capitalism (If You Don’t Let Us Dream We Won’t Let You Sleep, Royal Court), China (The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola) and the migrant crisis (Lampedusa, Soho Theatre). So how did he end up writing a historical drama for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe?
The answer is, he didn’t. “It was a scratch thing I’ve been writing for more of less five years,” he says. “Plays sometimes find their place, and it is ideal for that space. It seems to get disturbingly more relevant as time goes on.” Because it’s not just about Walsingham, of course. “I started out wanting to write something about the NSA, GCHQ and state surveillance,” he says. “And as we have found out, Facebook and Google and Cambridge Analytica have a corporate dimension to surveillance that is even more disturbing. But the fundamentally interesting and difficult challenge about writing political plays is that drama is inherently about individuals, and power is inherently about systems and ideologies.”
Previous dramas about the likes of the CIA leaker Edward Snowden “have been fairly terrible because they don’t conjure the scale of it [government control]”.
He was casting around for an individual story that could carry his weighty themes when his dad, who has held various professorial posts and now specialises in “legal control of various malfeasances, like racism in the police, the arms trade, the legalisation of drugs”, suggested that he look into Walsingham.
The idea appealed: last year the Royal Shakespeare Company staged Lustgarten’s play Seven Acts of Mercy, which blended the story of Caravaggio’s creation of the titular painting with a tale of housing policy and social cleansing in contemporary Merseyside. “Fair play to the audience,” he says. “They came for the Caravaggio and stayed for the socialist critique. I have never written an allegory before, and very few of my plays have affluent white men in positions of power as the hero,” he continues. “But it’s good to challenge yourself. I try not to repeat myself and to write something that stylistically and thematically is quite definitive with each play. Walsingham is a more sympathetic character in my rendering of him than he was in real life, but in real life he ended up being consumed by the systems he created: financially, in terms of status, and in terms of his own health. Systems, particularly those driven by loathsome ideologies, often produce much worse outcomes than most of the people within them want.”
Lustgarten says he has worked with well-meaning, intelligent people at the Department for International Trade, for charities and NGOs, who don’t realise they are doing more harm than good: a play on the subject is in the pipeline. He adds that “concentrated, unaccountable power is the root of all evil, whether it’s Stalin, Donald Trump or Weinstein”.
But if people don’t get the contemporary echoes of The Secret Theatre, that’s fine. It can be enjoyed as a historical story as well as an allegory, much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “only nowhere near as good”.
Miller is one of the few dramatists Lustgarten rates: he is probably as well known for his willingness to dismiss most theatre as “w***” for “w***ers”, and to slag off the work of everyone from David Hare to Tom Stoppard. Though he stands by everything he’s said in the past, he doesn’t want to diss anyone any more.
A former athlete, sometime Scottish champion at 400m, he says it is as hard to hate other writers as it is other runners, as he knows what they’ve gone through. The disciplines are similar in that they involve rigour, isolation and private effort followed by grinding public judgment.
He is slightly surprised to be making a living out of writing, though not a huge one: he rents a flat in Hastings, doesn’t drive a car or buy much. He is still “up for a protest or an occupation” but says his kind of activism has become professionalised now, and he does fewer teaching or prison gigs than he used to. His sole ambition is “to tell stories that we need to hear, that are important to more people than just me, to help to change in whatever small way I can the cultural paradigm we have been living through, and to make people feel empowered. There is a lot of compassion in my plays and that sense of bringing people together through it is important to me.”
In theatre, everyone has a part to play, including the audience, which is why he thinks it is not only better than TV or film, but also a possible model for how a just society should work. Of course, theatre is expensive, exclusive and dominated by educated white men like him, which is why it, like society, needs an overhaul.
He thinks it is coming. Lustgarten believes we are at the end of the neoliberal paradigm and it will either be replaced by totalitarianism, “or we regain some understanding of how powerful we are together. That is exciting and quite scary, especially for liberals who believed that Blairism had managed to reconcile the desire to make a s***load of money while making the world a better place. Very, very clearly you can’t do both.”
He is writing a play for the National about this reckoning for liberals, and about the part the “liberal betrayal” played in creating the far- Right and the new populism. “I have written straight racists, all kinds of people I don’t agree with,” he scowls. “But writing a Blairite sympathetically — that’s a challenge.”
The Secret Theatre is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, SE1 until Dec 16; shakespearesglobe.com