Two professional truth-stretchers: one, a writer and former M16 operative; one, a British spy for the KGB exiled in Moscow.
Ben Brown’s new play brings old friends Graham Greene (1904-1991) and Kim Philby (1912-1988) together at the point of seismic change in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev is in power with a new policy of openness, and Philby is in retirement with his fourth wife and medals awarded for his devotion to the cause.
This is very much based on fact, with some indisputable facts mixed with conjecture, and is rather more sympathetic to the spy than other dramas I have seen (I would recommend the TV plays Philby, Burgess and Maclean and Traitor). However, it does not shy away from the human cost of betrayal, on those involved and those caught in the periphery.
A Splinter of Ice is largely a two-person chat moving through Philby’s life. It is very detailed and may require a little prior knowledge of the Cambridge Spies – Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross – although if you are drawn to this, I suspect you will at least have an interest in the subject.
Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer respectively play Greene and Philby, and their acting is impeccable in depicting old colleagues who don’t quite trust each other and while drinking a copious amount, toy with each other in a game of cat and mouse.
These are two men of a particular class who have the same upbringing, and a shared understanding. The patriotic and the traitorous have more in common that you might think, and it is unsurprising that Greene asserts he would have given Philby a sporting chance to flee before betraying him to “The Firm”.
The conversation moves through Philby’s recruitment, time at M16 with Greene, his four marriages, his love of Communism, Greene’s novel (filmed in 1949) of The Third Man, and what old spies get up too. Did Greene know of his boss’s betrayal, even then? Was Harry Lime based on Philby, or on Greene himself? And how do old spies spend their days when they are no longer useful?
Philby shows no regrets for his betrayal of his country, revealing a steely resolve within. Greene is more circumspect, but we cannot entirely trust either of them. There are moments in the filming which seem to comment on the shift of power between the two men in Act Two, a tilt of a camera, the use of a close-up, a moment of tension developed but unspoken.
There is a also the presence of the fourth and final Mrs Philby, Rufa (1932- ), who seems to have brought him happiness, even if that happiness might be subject to restrictive conditions. Played by Sara Crowe in just a couple of scenes, she seems devoted to her husband and unquestioning about his former life. Although Philby may yearn for foodstuffs from Britain, and has never bothered to learn enough Russian to get by, Moscow remains “home”, the place to which he has always given his service.
This is a “tell, not show” play but it is engrossing from the first moment, and the characters feel completely believeable with their moments of resigned boredom, creaks of ageing, and acceptance of the card fate dealt them. After all those years, the bond of friendship endures above all else.
A Splinter of Ice streams at Original Theatre Online from 15 April – 31 July 2021, directed by Alastair Whatley with Alan Strachan, before going on a live stage tour this summer. You can purchase tickets for the stream here, starting at £20.
Image credit: James Findlay
See my other reviews of Original Theatre productions.