Graham Greene’s showdown with Soviet spy Kim Philby: A Splinter of Ice review | Theatre


In February 1987, the novelist Graham Greene met the Soviet spy Kim Philby for dinner. The latter had been the former’s supervisor and friend at MI6 30 years earlier, but by the time they met Philby had long been exposed as a communist double agent and was living out his retirement in Moscow.

Ben Brown’s play, directed by Alastair Whatley and Alan Strachan, imagines that reunion, and it contains the potential for a reckoning that takes in their work for MI6 as well as their friendship and betrayals. Filmed on stage by the Original Theatre Company, Michael Pavelka’s set is clean and simple – a Soviet-era drawing room that is convincingly bathed in retro shades of brown, yellow and mustard – while the action boldly relies on the power of the men’s conversation.

Brown’s dialogue is stylish and brimming with learning about Philby’s life, but the boldness doesn’t quite pay off. Though the focus is on Philby’s intentions, actions and the human cost of his spying, psychological depths are not plumbed. It is beautifully acted by Oliver Ford Davies (as Greene) and Stephen Boxer (as Philby), but it feels static and uneventful as a drama, with no real tension between the men.

Backstory … Sara Crowe as Philby’s wife, Rufa.
Backstory … Sara Crowe as Philby’s wife, Rufa. Photograph: James Findlay

The small talk in the first act is amusing enough – Philby tells Greene he takes holidays to Cuba and Czechoslovakia and still reads the Times every day. But there is too much exposition after this – “Then Macmillan cleared you,” Greene tells Philby; “My book was published and you kindly wrote the forward,” says Philby – and we don’t get beyond the weight of research to a more elemental face-off.

Philby’s fourth wife, Rufa (Sara Crowe), is little more than a minor character in the first act, taking Greene’s coat and scurrying off to the kitchen. She has a few more lines later, but these are to fill in Philby’s backstory rather than bring her truly to life. The most fascinating element of their conversation is how espionage intersects with loyalty – towards family and friends. Philby admits to betraying his father but justifies the lives lost as a result of his spying, insisting that he was never a double agent. “You can’t betray what you never belonged to,” he says.

Philby insists he has no regrets but his words are undercut by the information that he is virtually friendless in Moscow and overreliant on Rufa. In the melancholy closing image, he is a lone figure in his living room.

The play’s programme quotes Yuri Modin, the KGB controller of the “Cambridge Five”, who says of Philby: “He never revealed his true self.” This play seems no closer to taking us to the heart of either man. Perhaps that is the point – that there is a “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer”, as Greene famously said, and “an icicle” in the heart of a spy – but it leaves us dissatisfied all the same.



Source link

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: