Greene and Philby

Oliver Ford Davies as Graham Greene and Stephen Boxer as Kim Philby, Pictures: James Findlay

A splinter of ice

Malvern Theatres


It felt strange sitting in a theatre again, masked, socially distant, familiar . . . yet different, like revisiting childhood haunts and Ben Brown’s excellent play in its own way elicited the same feeling.

The feeling of having been there before even if only passing by. It is one of those productions which stay with you, memorable for story, for subject and above all for faultless acting creating believable characters.

For some, the names Burgess, Maclean and Philby are figures from history but for those of us of a certain age they are figures from our own past, a journey back to our own childhood haunts and the fears of nuclear war, four-minute warnings and cloak and dagger scandals at the height of the Cold War.

The discovery in 1951 that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, members of our own intelligence service, were Russian spies and had fled to Moscow, was a national humiliation, and then there was the hunt for the third man, the third spy, even higher in MI6, who it transpired was Kim Philby, who hightailed it to Moscow when the game was up in 1963, opening up the wounds in national pride once more.

They were members of the Cambridge Five, all educated at the university, all soviet spies, with Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross discovered later after secretly being given immunity from prosecution for telling what they knew.

Also in this murky world of espionage were writers Graham Greene and John Le Carré, both spies in MI6. Le Carré’s career in intelligence came to an end when Philby, who like Burgess and Maclean, had fled to Moscow, revealed the covers of British intelligence officers to the KGB creating an added layer of animosity beyond his fury at Philby's treason on Le Carré's part.

Greene, meanwhile had worked for Philby and the pair were good friends and Brown’s play, having its stage world premiere at Malvern incidentally, is about a meeting between the two in Moscow in 1987.

greene and philby 2

Old spies, old friends, old men. Greene and Philby reminisce in Moscow in 1987

The visit was opportunistic. Green had been invited to attend and speak at Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s international peace conference and took the opportunity to have dinner with his old friend at his Moscow flat. It was their first meeting since Philby's defection, and their  last, Philby was to die within a year from heart failure.

Greene would never talk about the meeting, or at least what the pair had talked about, which opened the door for Brown to fill in the gap. What would perhaps the greatest spy of the 20th century and one of its greatest authors talk about, catching up on old times, asking for explanations, reasons . . . treasons; all built around known facts from official records and their own writings.

Oliver Ford Davis is a rather avuncular Greene, friendly and sympathetic, interested in his old friend and how he is getting on, but then Greene and Philby were from a class where charm, politeness and good manners were a way of life. There was always a sympathy, an attempt at understanding, as shown in his forward to Philby’s book, a reasoning that Philby was dedicated to a cause he believed in rather than in it for personal gain – a matter of conscience not cash.

Green was to show displeasure, almost anger, only once when he questioned Philby about all the agents he had consigned to death by exposing them to his Moscow paymasters.

Philby, a more matter of fact cynic in the hands of Stephen Boxer, regretted none of it, war was a nasty business and the spies knew what they were getting into was his rationale. He was happy enough in Moscow, nothing much to do, never bothered to master Russian, read a lot and still ordered his books from his bookseller in England. An ex-pat in more ways than one.

We learn of Philby’s four marriages, the last to Rufa, his Russian wife, played with good humour by Karen Ascoe, his affair with Donald Maclean’s wife, Melinda and of his falling out with another soviet spy, George Blake. Blake had been caught and jailed for 42 years  in 1961, but escaped and fled to Moscow five years later.

Running through their imagined conversation was The Third Man, Greene’s novella and screenplay, which Brown’s Philby saw as some sort of telling of his own story, he after all was the original third man, and thought Greene had cast him in the role of the villain, Harry Lime, the antihero lurking in the shadows. Even the name suggested the same, Kim being just a nickname, his real name being Harold . . . Harry.

The hero in The Third Man is writer Holly Martins, who Philby sees as Greene giving himself a starring role, ironically, Philby, looking and sounding nothing like a Russian, was given the name Andrei Fyodorov by the Soviets, and he changed the surname to Martins, a Latvian name . . . and the hero in the Carol  Reed film.

Even Philby though had to accept the 1949 film showed somewhat clairvoyant powers on the part of Greene as the spy scandal, and the first hint of suspicion Philby might be involved, was not to emerge until two years later.

There is a fascination in the gentle sparring between two giant figures of the twentieth century, and a tying together, albeit fictionally, of real people and events in our recent past when the world seemed a simpler, black and white, goodies and baddies place.

We will never know if Philby was allowed to flee to Moscow to avoid another very public scandal, or whether he was offered a chance to return with immunity, to embarrass the Soviets, or indeed whether he was even a triple agent, planted in Moscow and the KGB by MI6, but then when it comes to secret service, the clue is in the name.

It is a beautifully acted play, always interesting and an absolute joy to watch with lovely moments of humour and irony. Importantly, it also reminds us just what we have missed in the past 15 months or so. Theatre on-line has its place, even advantages in that it gives people a chance to see productions they might never otherwise have seen or even been able to afford, but it is no substitute for the real thing, with actors, such as these, masters of their art, commanding a stage and drawing you into their world.

Directed by Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley, A Splinter in the ice, a quote from Green’s forward to Philby’s book, by the way, runs to 12-06-21 and then on tour.

Roger Clarke


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