MOSCOW. 1987. As the Cold War begins to thaw, novelist Graham Greene travels into the heart of the Soviet Union to meet with his old MI6 boss, Kim Philby, after declining his offer for more than 30 years.
So begins Ben Brown’s new political drama, A Splinter Of Ice, presented by The Original Theatre Company, under the direction of Alan Strachan, on tour at York Theatre Royal from July 6 to 10 as part of The Love Season.
Brown explores an unlikely friendship, one interwoven with deceit and loyalty between writer and spy, who set about catching up on old times under the watchful eye of Russian memoirist and Philby’s last wife, Rufa (played by Karen Ascoe).
Amid a new world order breaking out around them, how much did the writer of The Third Man know about Philby’s secret life as a spy – the most successful Soviet double agent in Cold War times – and did Philby betray his friend as well as his country?
Oliver Ford Davies, last seen on a York stage in Goodnight Mister Tom at the Grand Opera House in February 2013, will play Greene opposite Stephen Boxer as Philby, returning to the Theatre Royal after appearing there in The Remains Of The Day in March 2019.
“The play takes place when they hadn’t met for 35 years, when Graham Greene was invited as part of a peace conference that Gorbachev initiated, attending with likes of Yoko Ono, Peter Ustinov, Gregory Peck, Norman Mailer and Shirley MacLaine,” says Oliver.
“Greene tops and tails the play, starting by talking to the audience, then getting the story from ‘the greatest spy of the 20th century’. That’s the first half, with the second half being much more confrontational, as Greene challenges Philby about what he did in training men before sending them to their deaths, whereas Philby says ‘it’s a war and you send men to their deaths in war’.”
Greene was very fond of Philby, working with him at St Albans for three years during the Second World War, recalls Oliver. “But what also emerges is that though they are great friends, they withhold things; they’re not always honest with each other,” he says.
“Philby is economical with the truth, and right at the beginning of the play, Greene says, ‘perhaps he was just playing with me, as he did with others’.
“He was a master of deception and lying when he was interrogated in 1951 about being the ‘Third Man’, surviving undetected for another 12 years, until a chance comment nailed him as Russian mole, and when that revelation came, it came from a most unlikely source. The way he was so good at deceiving people was quite remarkable.”
Brown’s play gives Philby a constant slight smile. “It’s difficult to know what the smile said: was it boredom with the question being asked? But it could also be covering up his inner demons, in an act of subterfuge,” says Oliver.
“Greene and Philby are two highly intelligent, highly perceptive men. Greene was extraordinarily perceptive about the human condition in his writing.”
Brown’s storyline is rooted in fact, but its dialogue is “entirely fictitious”. “They did meet a few times in 1987 during the peace conference, and they definitely spent an evening having dinner at Philby’s flat, but Greene said, ‘that’s all I’m going to say on that’, so instead the play’s account is entirely fictitious speculation,” says Oliver.
Should you be pondering the significance of the title, let Oliver explain. “Greene famously said, ‘there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’, as a novelist has to be unscrupulous if he is any good, he contended, because all of your friends and relations will come into your work, even though you may not like doing this…
“…’and there is an icicle in the heart of a spy’. That’s what he wrote inside the front cover of a book he gave to Philby.”
In terms of drawing an audience, Oliver says: “We are aware that to people under 40, Kim Philby is probably not known and that Greene’s books are not that widely read, but people do know The Third Man film – and there’s a link there because Philby claims that when he saw the film on TV, it really troubled him because he thought Greene had sussed him out as the Third Man; he was the villainous Harry Lime.”
Oliver, whose research has taken in reading biographies and Greene short stories, describes the writer as a complicated figure but one who “makes a lot of English novelists look very parochial and Islington bound”.
“I was thinking about writers of spy stories the other day, how John le Carré admired Greene enormously, and how Greene said The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was greatest spy novel of them all,” he says. “Interestingly, Le Carré hated Philby and said MI6 should have annihilated him in Beirut.”
Putting Oliver on the spot over whether he would choose to show loyalty to friend or country, he answers: “Well, this comes up in the play, when Philby asks Greene, ‘what would you have done, if you had discovered I was a Russian mole within MI6?’.
“Greene answers, ‘I would have given you 24 hours…then I would have betrayed you. Out of one or the other, there are limits to how much I would betray my country.”
Oliver never did reveal his own preference!
The Original Theatre Company in A Splinter Of Ice, York Theatre Royal, July 6 to 10, 8pm; Thursday and Saturday matinees, 3pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
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