isIn February 1987, novelist Graham Greene met Soviet spy Kim Philby for dinner. The latter had been the former’s supervisor and friend at MI6 30 years earlier, but by the time they met Philby had long been exposed as a Communist double agent and was living his retirement in Moscow.
Ben Brown’s play, directed by Alastair Whatley and Alan Strachan, imagines this reunion, and it contains the potential for a calculation that encompasses their work for MI6 as well as their friendship and betrayals. Shot on stage by the Original Theater Company, Michael Pavelka’s set is clean and simple – a Soviet-era living room convincingly bathed in retro tones of brown, yellow and mustard – while the action rests boldly. on the power of men’s conversation.
Brown’s dialogue is elegant and rich in information about Philby’s life, but the daring doesn’t quite pay off. While the focus is on Philby’s intentions, actions, and the human cost of his espionage, the psychological depths are not deepened. It’s beautifully portrayed by Oliver Ford Davies (as Greene) and Stephen Boxer (as Philby), but it feels static and uneventful like drama, with no real tension between men.
The gossip of the first act is quite funny – Philby tells Greene that he takes vacations to Cuba and Czechoslovakia and still reads The Times every day. But there are too many exposures after that – “So Macmillan cleared you,” Greene said to Philby; “My book has been published and you kindly wrote the front,” says Philby – and we’re not going beyond the weight of the research for a more basic confrontation.
Philby’s fourth wife, Rufa (Sara Crowe), is little more than a minor character in the first act, taking Greene’s mantle and rushing for the kitchen. She’s got a few more lines later, but these need to complement Philby’s backstory rather than really bring it to life. The most fascinating part of their conversation is how espionage intersects with loyalty – to family and friends. Philby admits to betraying his father but justifies the lives lost as a result of his spying, insisting he was never a double agent. “You cannot betray what you never belonged to,” he said.
Philby insists he has no regrets, but his words are thwarted by reports that he is virtually friendless in Moscow and excessive towards Rufa. In the melancholy closing image, he is a lonely figure in his living room.
The play’s program quotes Yuri Modin, the KGB controller of the “Cambridge Five”, as saying of Philby: “He never revealed himself”. This piece doesn’t seem any closer to taking us to the hearts of either man. Perhaps that is the point – that there is a “shard of ice in the heart of a writer,” as Greene put it, and “an ice cube” in the heart of a spy – but this all the same leaves us unhappy.