It is 1987 and the Soviet Union is not long for this world. Neither – it turns out – were Graham Greene and Kim Philby, the latter dying a year later the former a few years after that. This is a fictionalised account of a real reunion of two friends and former colleagues.
The meeting itself is a sparse and self-contained affair, held in the Moscow flat of Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer). The first half of the play perhaps spends too long establishing the pair’s history – the exposition fitting neatly into Philby’s desire to reminisce and Greene (Ford-Davies) search for answers. For someone coming new to this story, this would be essential, but for anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the two men’s background, it might be too much. That’s a hard balance to strike when writing fiction about real people. For the most part, Brown gets it about right, but in doing so, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the kind of peaks and climaxes you might have expected when writing about the author of The Third Man (which is the one key text I would highly recommend anyone see before the play as it is referenced throughout with no sparing the audience of the twists).
A Splinter of Ice is a very static play. Most of the action consists of a dialogue between two seated older men, though this is broken up by Philby’s frequent trips to top up his vodka. It is also not a play that seeks to thrill. The somewhat shocking revelation that takes us into the interval is fairly swiftly dispatched in the early part of the second half. This is probably the moment of the most dramatic tension.
What you do get though is a sense of a dialogue of ideals. Of friends from opposing ways of thinking grappling with what they do and don’t have in common. At the heart of the play are questions about loyalty. Is Philby a ‘traitor”? He would argue no, as he never had loyalty to the British state in the first place. Greene would argue the opposite – that he betrayed both his country and the many young men whose training had been in Philby’s hands as much as their deaths (after his disclosure of their activities) were on his conscience.
This is a play about loyalty to an ideal. But it isn’t particularly a political play. We do not get an explanation from Philby as to why he chose Soviet communism over British capitalism. Nor do we get a counterargument from Greene. In fact, it is Greene’s conviction that Philby does believe in his ideals, and his admiration for putting that belief above personal comfort and gain, that drives his own sense of loyalty. For Greene, friendship is that ultimate ideal.
The play ends as quietly as it starts with Rufa Philby (Kim’s fourth wife – an under-developed part given life by Karen Ascoe) seeing Greene off in the snow. There is no great denouement, no crescendo, no heavy-handed climax. But it is an affecting piece of drama, superbly acted and delivered for all its stillness.
- By Ben Brown
- Directed by Alan Strachan with Alastair Whatley
- Set & Costume Designer: Michael Pavelka
- Starring: Oliver Ford-Davies, Stephen Boxer and Karen Ascoe
- Jermyn Street Theatre
- Until 30th October 2021
- Time: 19:30