FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Alan Strachan with Alastair Whatley, Set and Costume Designer Michael Pavelka, Lighting Designer Jason Taylor. Sound Design and Composer Max Pappenheim. Casting Director Ellie Collyer-Bristow CDG, Costumer Supervisor Siobhan Boyd, Props supervisor Robyn Hardy, Production Manager Tamsin Rose, Stage Manager Catherine Gibbs.
Till October 30th when it tours to Malvern Festival Theatre, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Theatre Clwyd, Theatre Royal Bath, Theatre Royal York, Edinburgh King’s Theatre, and Cambridge Arts Theatre.
In February 1987 novelist Graham Greene met his old MI6 boss Kim Philby for dinner at the latter’s Moscow flat. Philby’s for once not cooking, but has meticulously prepared everything so yet again his fourth wife Rufa has little to do but cook and serve. That’s what she does with Greene’s wet shoes on a radiator. It’s a prophesy for her role here. Still, how could the well-travelled Greene not realise you bring wellingtons with you in February?
Ben Brown’s A Splinter of Ice opens at Jermyn Street Theatre before embarking on a tour to Malvern, Guildford, Cardiff, Bath, York, Edinburgh and Cambridge. It was filmed – at Everyman, Cheltenham – in April.
Oliver Ford Davies’ Graham Greene, Kim Philby’s Stephen Boxer are the very actors you’d hope to orchestrate Brown’s often sparkling, mordantly funny dialogue.
It’s luxury casting and they make the most of it: Ford Davies in querulous havering, eyebrow-raising before he pounces a surprise, rising from the depths of his voice to articulate a forbidden question – luckily vodka soon negates niet. His Greene is both disarmingly open and sympathetic, withholding judgement as long as he can – and wily. Ford Davies has a way with gimlet eyes.
Boxer as that unknowable spy whom even the KGB couldn’t fathom rarely raises his voice. More than evasive, he’s direct on safe ground, visibly unwinding as he tanks up on an impressive amount of vodka, later wine and whisky. Yet wariness and surprise never leave him either. Most – and it’s almost a cliché with spies abroad like Guy Burgess – Boxer exudes an elegant, wistfully-English-missing man who reads The Times daily for the cricket scores and confesses Lord’s is what he misses most.
Oxford marmalade, Lea & Perrins his children bring. You realise Glasnost has been going on tacitly for some time before new man Gorbachev articulates it, and perestroika. Brown ensures we don’t miss the old signifiers and reminds anyone who wasn’t there.
Karen Ascoe’s Rufa Philby combines warm confiding with caution, as if with her husband’s oldest friend she can unburden herself a little, though Ascoe ensures we don’t miss the watchfulness. She’s hardly in the first act beyond meet-and-greet, and a few more confidings in the second. That does add a neat plot point or two, though you feel the part’s underwritten. Admittedly it’s really an amongst old spies duologue. Still, even Rufa’s paid the price of marrying Philby: you have to cut off from all your friends.
That’s the pith of Philby’s avowed preference of Moscow. His still-inadequate Russian limits new friends; we learn that an affair with Maclean’s wife Melissa, and a photograph taken by his son of George Blake and Philby has ended that relationship too. Greene’s all Philby’s got of friends; and he hangs on to Rufa just as he does when she guides him across the ice outside their home.
With such actors and writing you’re riveted, but naggingly asking where the crisis comes, where the betrayal. It’s what Brown nearly gives us twice, when a revelation shocks the other, but Boxer’s Philby has a sphinx-like capacity for subsiding into papal absolution, which might cheat some of pyrotechnics.
We get flashes of mutual admiration of each others’ talents as writer and spy. Brown tends to fill in too, though we need it. ‘My book was published and you kindly wrote the foreword’ Philby unnecessarily tells Greene of his 1968 memoir My Silent War. There might have been a way of getting round that, like ‘the only bit of your preface I didn’t like…’ but it does the job and there’s so much more Brown does right – like the battle Philby had getting the Soviets to allow him publication at all. And then there’s the scar on his wrist, Greene notes at the end of Act One.
It’s directed by Ayckbourn specialist Alan Strachan with Alastair Whatley, and Michael Pavelka’s naturalistic set shows a Moscow drawing room replete with 1950s sofa and sideboard stage right and a couple of chairs, one winged, donated by fellow-spy Donald Maclean, a Persian carpet; even a cast-iron radiator through an open door to dry Greene’s shoes. An old mahogany wireless stage left. Photos and mementos to garnish. It’s almost English, though not quite – furniture’s too rectilinear, hinting Soviet utility.
Pavelka’s costume design is by contrast English enough for the men, comfortable for Philby, suited for conference-refugee Greene. Rufa Philby’s dress mixes touches of smartness alongside neutrality. Lighting designer Jason Taylor apart from the steady tableau spotlights exteriors where Greene enters and exits the flat, hatted. Yes like Orson Welles in that film. We’ll be returning to it.
Sound design and composer Max Pappenheim inevitably employs Anton Karas’ cimbalom theme for The Third Man, which Greene wrote the screenplay for – the reasons for which seem clear (not just prescient pun on Philby’s being the third man), though with Brown’s ingenuity there’s more to it. Philby for instance thinks the screenplay’s about him. Both surprise the other with their actual first names and there’s a richly comic tussle.
Green starts digging in Act Two. We get details of Philby’s fatal betrayal of spies he trained himself, notably two young Georgians. But then as he claims ‘You can’t betray what you never belonged to’ having been a communist at 22 (Greene too, briefly, which caused him far more trouble!) and it’s to Brown’s credit he meshes this with Greene’s own oft-faltered Catholicism, so he gets Philby in a way few can. Both are believers. Indeed Greene’s about to give a talk about ‘Closer relations between Catholics and Communists…. Both hate fascists.’ That latter bit needs qualifying, but not here.
Apart from the felicitous flow of their time in MI6, Greene’s reason for leaving, and something about a tape, there’s all kinds of shadow-play. Would Greene have betrayed Philby? Well, 24 hours notice allows Greene generously. Philby’s comically aggrieved and quotes Forster’s ‘I’d rather betray my country than my friend’ blanking that Greene would betray his country for 24 hours. Boxer’s way with this hurt is a kind of aria in itself.
However there’s two delicious surprises the old spies spring on each other, neither obvious. And a third from elsewhere. Even a congenial fourth and darker fifth. It’s enough to mark a fitting climax, though conventional crisis never quite arrives, so much as shock over marmalade. Brown perhaps doesn’t feel a man of 82 visiting one of 74 could prompt explosions; that’s moot.
That said, anyone seeing this won’t mind a bit. It’s far too absorbing, terraced, careful never to overload and richly veined like strands in marmalade ever to lose its grip. With such an acting masterclass the play’s a bewitchingly-voiced fugue on the limits of belief and betrayal.
Greene’s famed epigraph – ‘there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’ – surely applies to both of them when he adds: ‘and an icicle in the heart of a spy.’ It hangs over the icy night as Greene pronounces the epitaph.