A Splinter of Ice – Theatr Clwyd
📅 Sat 12th June – Fri 25th June
Running time 2hrs 10 mins (inc interval)
Betrayal. “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” – E.M.Forster
Moscow, February 1987, two of the greatest 20th Century novelists Graham Greene and the Soviet spy Kim Philby are reunited. Philby had been Greene’s supervisor and friend at MI6 30 years earlier, but at the time of the meeting Philby had long been exposed as a communist double agent and was living in Moscow with his final wife, Rufa – a Russian memoirist.
I had seen several advertisements on social media for The Original Theatre Company’s online recording of the production, and I was on the verge of buying a ticket when I spotted that the play was touring and coming to Theatr Clwyd. Whilst online plays have been a salvation throughout the pandemic, there is nothing to beat the feeling of sitting in a theatre watching a live production.
Graham Greene served in MI6 in the 1940s, which is where he met and became friends with Kim Philby, a double agent, who in 1963 was revealed as the “third man” in the Cambridge Spy Ring. Ben Brown’s play imagines how the reunion between Greene and Philby would have played out and whether Philby not only betrayed his country, but whether he betrayed his friend as well. It also scratches under the surface of one of Greene’s most famous stories, The Third Man, which was released as both a film starring Orson Welles and a novella with which Greene could use as the basis for his film script. Questions arise during the evening as to how much of Philby’s secret life Greene was aware of, and whether he was the basis of the character Harry Lime.
The set is a simple affair, a Soviet-era drawing room in retro shades of yellow and brown, so the play relies on the strength and vigour of the conversations between the two men played by Olivier Award-winning Oliver Ford Davies (Game of Thrones, Star Wars) and Stephen Boxer (The Crown).
This is an extraordinary political drama exploring a long and unlikely friendship, woven of both loyalty and deceit; but throughout the play, we never really get to know either man well enough to condemn or acquit them for their actions. Brown’s dialogue is intelligent and often humorous, and both parts are played well enough, but there is a lack of depth and intensity between the two protagonists. It was hard to imagine either party had anything left in common with the other to want to “catch up on old times.” Greene made his name trivialising spying with his novels, Philby spent most of his life living in Russia feeling the aftereffects of his espionage after he was exposed.
The play commences with a lot of small talk over glasses of vodka, and we learn a lot about Philby’s life in Russia. He still enjoys reading The Times, his family ensures he has Scotch sent over, and there is the sense that whilst he has kissed Britain goodbye, there is still a thread tugging at him that he cannot let go of. We learn about Philby’s actions working at MI6 and the human cost his work as a spy took, but we never really get past the surface as to why he betrayed his country. Greene tries to subtly extract information from Philby but never really shows any intent, instead, Philby moves the focus onto whether he was the inspiration for Harry Lime in The Third Man, a belief that Greene is quick to quash.
There is a lot of background information supplied in the process of conversation about the events that happened in the 30 years before this meeting, but there is nothing substantial for the audience to be shocked or surprised at. “My book was published and you kindly wrote the foreword,” says Philby to Greene.
Why? Why did Philby write a book? What explosive content did it contain? Why was Greene asked to write the forward, and why did he agree? I suppose I’d better pick up a copy of “My Silent War” to find out! I presume there had to be something more substantial than just because they were friends and once worked together. And what was the real reason for Greene suddenly turning up? It was too convenient that he was in town for a star-studded peace conference and thought he would just drop by. Throughout the play, Philby seems on edge as he is questioned by his old friend; is this because the friend cannot be trusted and is still the enemy?
The most enthralling part of the play is when Greene challenges Philby about agents sent behind enemy lines to what would be certain death; and how being a spy questions a person’s loyalty to their friends and family, and with that, their morality. Philby confesses to betraying his own father and about the innocent lives which were lost because of his espionage (although he claimed many were ex-Nazi anyway and somehow deserved their fate), but he also claimed he was never a double agent. He seemed at peace with his decisions, but as the play drew to a close, Philby’s wife, who for most of the first act is just seen taking Greene’s coat before ushering him to the drawing room and then scurrying off to the kitchen, fills in yet more of Philby’s backstory. It seems that Philby lives a solitary life in Moscow, his inability to speak Russian means he cannot partake in a full social life, and his former career as a spy means that people don’t wish to know him. He is reliant on Rufa for everything. Philby states he has no regrets about his past, but as the final sombre scenes play out, he cuts a dejected and lonely figure on the stage.
The premise of the play is an exciting one, the audience has been invited to watch a fascinating moment in history when two great men meet, but they are let down by a script that neither takes us deep to the heart of either man or one that attempts to understand their motivations; especially the motivations of Philby who moved from a communist allegiance as a student and moved onto passing secrets to the Soviets, culminating in the certain deaths of many agents. Graham Greene famously stated that there was a “splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” – meaning that whilst the writer can empathise with a person’s suffering, there is observation and notetaking being done in the background ready to be shared in a later book. Maybe that is why this play doesn’t have the answers we crave, or perhaps it’s just that both individuals took their secrets to the grave.
(Viewed Thursday 24th June)
A Splinter of Ice UK Tour 2021
Starring Oliver Ford Davies (Game of Thrones, Star Wars) as Graham Greene, Stephen Boxer (The Crown) as Kim Philby and Karen Ascoe as Rufa Philby.
8 - 12 June - MALVERN Festival Theatre - www.malvern-theatres.co.uk
15 - 19 June - GUILDFORD Yvonne Arnaud Theatre - www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk
21 - 26 June - MOLD Theatr Clwyd - www.theatrclwyd.com
28 June - 3 July - BATH Theatre Royal - www.theatreroyal.org.uk
6 - 10 July - YORK, Theatre Royal York - www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
13 - 17 July - EDINBURGH King’s Theatre - www.capitaltheatres.com
19 - 24 July - CAMBRIDGE, Cambridge Arts - www.cambridgeartstheatre.com
Starring Oliver Ford Davies (Game of Thrones, Star Wars) as Graham Greene, Stephen Boxer (The Crown) as Kim Philby and Sara Crowe (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Rufa Philby.
Standard - £20
Supporter Package - £22.50 - Includes digital programme
Premium Package - £100 - Includes signed script by a creative team member of your choice, digital programme and supporter credit on the final films.
Watch anytime, as many times as you like until 31 July 2021. Available worldwide.