There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer but an icicle in the heart of a spy; Graham Greene’s own words form the basis of Ben Brown’s new drama imagining a meeting between the writer and the twentieth century’s most famous real-life spy Kim Philby, former friends reunited in Moscow in the late 1980s as both Philby’s life and the political regime he betrayed everything for – the Soviet Union – were coming to an end. One of the things you hear most about the Philby story is that his friends and colleagues in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) never forgave him, the level of deception and deep betrayal leaves scars to this day, but Brown’s intriguing drama wonders if the opportunity for forgiveness was ever in play.
No matter how many books are written, dramas produced or investigations undertaken, when assessing the work of deeply embedded intelligence officers like the Cambridge Five there are two questions that continue to intrigue us; first why did they turn against the country of their birth to align their loyalties with a foreign nation they had never visited, and, second, was it really worth it – when forced to defect as international mole hunts across the UK and US intelligence services uncovered their deception, was the life they were forced to adopt in Russia everything they had dreamed it would be or just the terrible and lonely price for staying alive?
Brown’s play explores these questions using an imagined meeting between novelist and former SIS operative Graham Greene and Kim Philby, the (to UK eyes) disgraced spy once touted as the natural successor to C, the Head of SIS, real life figures thrust into Brown’s semi-fictionalised duologue where the audience eavesdrops on two former friends reunited more than 20 years after Philby’s defection. The cat and mouse structure is a cliche of spy drama but our position as KGB listeners proves fruitful as Brown’s tense dialogue evolves beyond the simplicity of hunter and prey to something far more complex as the question of loyalty to country and ideology is deepened by the friendship between the men which both seem determined to preserve against the odds.
Brown is fascinating by Philby it is clear and across the two Act structure of Splinter of Ice his biography and its outcome is prioritised, leaving the more famous writer in the shadows – a potentially deliberate ploy that maintains a deeply valuable and unresolved tension in the dialogue as Greene’s ultimate motives remain pleasingly uncertain. But it means that Philby, most often, has the floor, recounting his backstory with sometimes laboured exposition in the guise of explaining himself to his friend.
Much of Philby’s story – presented to his former pal as surprising information – is now widely known from similar cultural re-tellings of his story including the BBC mini-series Cambridge Spies from 2003 and Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad focusing on Guy Burgess (1983). Details of his first marriage to Communist Litzi Friedmann, his time as a journalist in Spain and his recruitment on a bench in Regent’s Park are easily accessible. But Philby’s story is so audacious it bears retelling so as the conversation moves on to his time in 1950s Washington during the defection of Donald McLean and Guy Burgess which cast suspicion on Philby, as well as his own eventual discovery in 1963 after which he absconded from Beirut, this data frames a much wider exploration of the bonds of Establishment and the consistency of Philby’s individual conviction – a claim to steadfastness he makes in the play as he organises the activities and consequences of his life story around a commitment made at the age of 22.
Brown is aware of the weight of these details however and, despite a few sections that start to sag, creates momentum in the drama by allowing the conversation to move between different topics as past and present mix with discussions of equally well known colleagues who betrayed the state – George Blake in particular who was the subject of Simon Grays’s Cellmates which also looks at the regretful later years in Russia when two friends reunite. But at its core, A Splinter of Ice is an exploration of friendship and its survival, how much either man can truly rely on the other and if – as Greene fleetingly suggests – a line must be drawn.
Through these topics, Brown looks to explore the nature of storytelling itself, not only how individuals reorder and reinterpret their own memories to consciously or unconsciously justify their present course, but how fiction writers like Greene and even le Carre (who receives a brief and slightly embittered name-check from Philby) use their work as an outlet to process their own experience of the Service. Both men in this play are haunted by their shared past and as neither seeks obviously to entrap or achieve victory over the other, there is a mutual process of consolation and consolidation that happens through their evening together.
Brown uses reference to Greene’s book and film of The Third Man as a secondary thematic layer to give shape to some of the discussions taking place between the author and old friend Philby who recognises and actively points to aspects of the story and its characters that appear to reflect his life, presumably appropriated by Greene to flesh-out his fictional tale of friendly betrayal amongst spies that is replicated by Brown’s play – an example of art reflecting art reflecting life. As the protagonists debate just who Holly Martins and Harry Lime represent, Philby shrewdly questions whether Greene’s tactics are the same as his creations, attempting to ensnare his former colleague under the guise of a lapsed acquaintance and lure him towards a form of retribution. In fact the first thing you will notice is Max Pappenheim’s homage to the film’s unmistakable and distinctive score composed by Anton Karas.
But A Splinter of Ice is not all subterfuge and double jeopardy, in fact there is a more tender reading of the play in which the two men see each other as much missed companions in which their suspicion is overtaken by their very great care for one another that emerges spontaneously through their conversation. That Brown, and Director Alastair Whatley with Alan Strachan, allow these two interpretations to weave together is one of the most exciting aspects of this production, moving away from a basic biography by mirroring its spy subjects and never allowing the audience to be quite sure which of its many faces is the real one.
Stephen Boxer adds many facets to his portrayal of Philby, a man whose reputation certainly proceeds him and, outwardly at least, maintains a certainty about his choices to the end. Whether anyone is actively monitoring his communications is left unresolved and Philby certainly says all the right things, even in the play’s darker moments when Greene asks him to account for the deaths he caused. But Boxer’s performance smartly traverses a thin line between truth and fiction so both his friend and the audience cannot be sure whether he means what he says, is quietly asking for help or has managed to deceive himself as a survival technique.
But you do get to see this new side to Philby, a shadow of sadness if not quite regret on his soul that misses the fundamental freedoms of British life as he checks the cricket score in his days old newspaper and unceremoniously drinks and drinks throughout the play – alcoholism a notable feature of ex-spies in Russia. Boxer shows Philby as a caring friend, a committed Englishman and Communist, a cold-hearted killer prepared to manipulate and twist a conversation to suit whatever story he is telling, a charismatic companion, an affectionate friend and a lonely man trying to impose some meaning on the fragments of his life more than 20-years after the once exciting dash of his work came to end.
By contrast, Oliver Ford Davies as Greene is far harder to read, his withdrawn and watchful performance designed to draw Philby out either in affectionate memory of their shared past or for some more desperate purpose. We learn very little about Greene beyond the title of several novels worked into the dialogue and that he once defended Philby in print, but what happens below the imperturbable service is far harder to determine. Where his friend seems positively garrulous, Greene gives perfunctory answers to questions and soon turns the conversation back to Philby – a trick his companion fails to notice as this silent confidant gains his trust.
Tellingly, Greene notes several times that no one ever really leaves the firm and hints are dropped of recent communication pertaining to his visit to Moscow and there is such steel in Ford Davies’s gaze at times that despite his reduced role in the conversation, you feel he is entirely in control of it, like that other famous fictional spy George Smiley coaxing a confession by relying on his partner’s need to talk. The only time Ford Davies suggests even a modicum of fear happens in the closing scene where an unexpected element changes the circumstances and this intriguing creation makes a hasty exit. Was he trying to trick Philby or was it merely the awkwardness of long-parted friends, we are left to wonder.
Filmed on stage at Cheltenham Everyman, this Original Theatre Company production was conceived as a stream but has since announced a brief UK tour scheduled for June and July. Staged in Philby’s Moscow flat, the ambiguous tone of this potentially decisive meeting is set immediately by Michael Pavelka’s utilitarian design which marks the simplicity of the apartment with basic furniture in shades of brown and beige with only small domestic comforts marking this out as a home rather than a cell.
The occasional intrusions of Philby’s final wife Rufa (Sara Crowe) slightly unbalance the tone and seem to be an excuse to bring on a female character for equity without adding much to the play except to note that deception of one kind or another remains part of Philby’s approach even now. But as this production heads for the stage almost exactly as presented here, it is the comparison between the two men that will linger; spies and writers both with faith in an unseen protector, which one of them is really fictionalising the past and the honesty to regret are at the heart of this play. Fellow writer E.M. Forster suggested he would rather betray his country than a friend but in this engaging two-hander those loyalties are sorely tested and whether Philby should ever have invited Greene to come in from the cold (a great line from Brown) he is left to ponder as the splinter of ice refuses to melt.
A Splinter of Ice is available to stream from Original Theatre Company until 31 July and tickets start at £20. A touring version of the show will run in June and July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.