Literary agent is one of those jobs that you don’t really think about someone doing, like the person who makes door handles for cars, or the person who puts the filaments in lightbulbs; someone must be doing it, but we don’t know anything about them. For most of us, the closest we get to the literary world is going into a bookshop and picking something to read from the enormous choice available. Do we ever think about how those books got published in the first place? Jo Fletcher-Cross was in the first night audience at The Agent at Trafalgar Studios to see if it answers any of these questions…
Alexander (William Beck) is one of these mysterious creatures, a highly successful London literary agent who seems to have it all. In his slick office full of books and modern furniture, he makes and breaks the careers of authors; schmoozing with publishers and pals on the phone and arranging deals worth millions with a casual grace that belies his delight in the aggressive cut and thrust of the big players in the literary field. Humphrey Jaeger’s set makes clever use of the limited space available in the tiny studio, filling it with leather cubes, bookcases and all the small and seemingly essential accoutrements of a modern office.
This is a classic two-hander, with the basic set up being that one of Alexander’s less important clients, the downtrodden Stephen (Stephen Kennedy) who has just sent him his second novel, has been invited in for a meeting. Alexander is not keen on this latest work, a tale of coal miners where nothing much seems to happen, and wants to discuss Stephen’s future with the agency. So far, so obvious…but there are some sharp twists in this tale, and before you have worked out where your sympathies lie, blackmail material and cut-throat deals are on the table. Suddenly it is not so clear who the good guy is, or even if there is one.
The play is dominated by subtle, sometimes tiny, shifts in power between the agent and his client, right up to the very last moment. At times, The Agent is very funny, with sharp observations about how artistry and money work both with and against each other. But there is a dark heart beating beneath the humour, and a nasty, bitter edge to the proceedings that ensure this is no heart-warming tale of right versus wrong.
The conflict of art and business all feels depressingly real, the dreams of would-be writers being dashed at the smallest whim of just one person, or ludicrous deals being made for work that everyone acknowledges to be complete rubbish, but by the right person at the right time. An interesting touch is having the voice of Charlie, a publisher who Alexander makes a spectacular deal with, played by a real publisher, Alan Samson. His casual but slightly aggressive style sounds perfectly feasible.
The Agent exposes the cold, murky core in a mysterious and often romanticised profession. This unexpectedly brutal play is a stinging insight into the world of selling art. And possibly souls.