“You have to know your history,” a fellow theatregoer remarked at the interval, in reference to understanding the various nuances in the dialogue. I doubt I would have been able to follow it all without, for instance, having read Graham Greene’s (Oliver Ford Davies) The Third Man many years ago. As it is, some of the details weren’t, frankly, all that interesting – who said what to whom and when and in what context may well have been of interest to Greene and to his friend and MI6 former colleague Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer) but are not necessarily of much consequence years or even decades after events in question.
For a conversation in which no questions were supposed to be asked, there were, well, a lot of questions asked. To be fair, a lot of them were answered, too, but there remain red lines and certain things that are not spoken about, so one is never entirely sure whether the full picture is being presented – and, erring on the side of caution, I ended up wondering whether anything anyone is saying is the entire truth or a complete fabrication, or something in between. This is, after all, the world of spy networks, which reminded me of one of the questions in the Counter Terrorist Check Questionnaire that the Government requires for civil servants: “Have you ever been involved in
espionage?” Presumably, anyone who answers ‘yes’ is not a very good spy.
The play might well, therefore, be something of a victim of its own success. It brought to mind the motion picture Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was so brilliant at portraying a cold, clinical, ruthless and distinctly unsentimental portrait of what it meant to be a spy that there was zero emotional attachment to any of the characters, regardless of what happened to them. The key difference here is that there is some empathy in this production, not least thanks to the appearance of Philby’s wife, Rufa (Karen Ascoe), as well as Greene and Philby embracing each other when they meet, and again when their evening together is over.
Rufa isn’t given a lot of stage time, preferring to leave the two men to catch up, having not met for decades, while the couple’s Moscow apartment is suitably functional and understated, given Philby’s socialist beliefs. An offer to come back to Blighty is politely declined – Gorbachev’s Russia is preferred over Thatcher’s Britain, thanks very much, even if Philby admits to missing (amongst other things) relatives, cricket and Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce.
This is, essentially, talking heads, and not much else, and yet it was, at times, a compelling watch. It was, however, seldom tense – the style of questioning was far more Terry Wogan than Jeremy Paxman – which may have been refreshing for some in a world with so much aggression and confrontation, but didn’t exactly leave me feeling as though any particularly juicy spy secrets were ever revealed. The production plays it safe in more ways than one, and would have been more enticing if the ‘softly, softly’ approach were abandoned for something more fiery and passionate.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set in Moscow in 1987. As the Cold War begins to thaw, one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, Graham Greene, meets his old MI6 boss and notorious Soviet spy, Kim Philby. The two men raise their vodka glasses and talk about old times. How much did Greene know about Philby’s ways? Did the Red Spy betray his old friend as much as he did his own country? And who is listening in the room next door…?
A Splinter of Ice arrives after an acclaimed national tour. Ben Brown’s (Three Days in May) political drama is directed by Alan Strachan with Alastair Whatley, and stars Olivier Award winner Oliver Ford Davies (Game of Thrones) as Graham Greene, Stephen Boxer (The Crown) as Kim Philby, with Karen Ascoe as his wife Rufa.
A SPLINTER OF ICE
Co-production with Original Theatre
written by Ben Brown
directed by Alan Strachan
with Alastair Whatley
14 October – 30 October 2021