THE lives of spies – defected and active – have provided rich pickings for writers and dramatists, with Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, Peter Moffat’s Cambridge Spies, Graham Greene’s The Third Man and John Le Carre’s tales of George Smiley leading the way for Ben Brown’s new play, A Splinter of Ice.
Halfway through its opening tour, the Original Theatre Company’s production is at Bath until 3rd July, bringing Stephen Boxer and Oliver Ford Davies to the roles of Kim Philby and Graham Greene in another exploration of how the famous Cold War spies existed through their re-location in the USSR.
The play’s title is taken from Greene’s own comment about the heart of a writer, and it immediately reflects the opening of Brown’s play, set in a freezing Moscow with its streets covered in ice. It’s a play about friendship, loyalty and the human craving for both affection and understanding – subjects with which the world has been grappling in the past 18 months.
Greene, on a visit to a Russia conference exploring glasnost and perestroika, visited his old friend and MI5 subordinate Philby, in the flat he shared with his Russian wife Rufa (Karen Ascoe in the Original Theatre production). Their mutual affection is palpable, but Greene is curious about how Philby came to this place in life, and has been charged with offering him a chance to return to England, arousing the defector’s suspicions – even though he is hiding a minder in the adjoining room.
The play, directed by Alan Strachan, is delicately played by two actors whose characterisations are cleverly balanced. But I wonder how much impact or interest it will hold for younger audiences, for whom the Cold War is the sort of ancient history that was exemplified by the South Sea Bubble for my generation. Its domestic setting and intimate story have neither emotional nor physical tension. A younger audience, raised on fast-action thrillers and pulse-racing crime dramas, may miss the sense of jeopardy which is always present in both Le Carre’s and Greene’s own novels. This play is about subtle nuance, tiny details and a haunting nostalgia that cuts through the chill of the Moscow night.