Written by Ben Brown
Directed by Alan Strachan & Alastair Whatley
Allegiances are a fragile concept, a peculiar unfaltering sense of loyalty and kinsmanship which places another’s safety ahead of ourselves. To overcome the innate ability to protect ourselves is a tremendous and (to some) curious ability. To lay down our lives in service of countries, politics and old ‘firm friends’. And yet, the penalty for maintaining this loyalty is usually to be cast aside and forgotten, and the punishment for ‘switching sides’ is to be cattle-branded and picked apart by history.
Juggernauts, though perhaps lost to the ashes of time for many outsides of spy-novels and cinephiles, Kim Philby and Graham Greene’s influence on espionage and the persona of the British and Soviet Union relationship ripples to this day. Philby, a turncoat for many, sought a life in Soviet Russia after the appeal of Communism and Marxist mentors introduced him to the cause. Meanwhile, a name which sits alongside the Magnus-opus of cinema The Third Man, Graham Greene was as equally familiar with a script as he was the halls of MI6.
Original Theatre’s adaptation of the men’s lives, at the tail-end of the Cold War inside Philby’s Moscow apartment, dramatises Ben Brown’s A Splinter of Ice as the two men meet for the final time – though neither knows it at first. Under the guise of a press briefing and conference, Greene trudges across the icy landscape into the humble, moderate home of his once colleague and continued friend. As the curtain rises on Edinburgh’s long-dormant King’s Theatre, there’s an instantaneous reminder of the intimacy and vigour of dramatized storytelling, a chill creeping across the room both in reverence and in anticipation.
And if one required further evidence to the value of live theatre and the intensity of a performer’s physicality being vital, one need only witness the initial meeting of Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) and Philby (Stephen Boxer). The metaphorical chessboard as the curtain lifts, these two men circle one another as friend and adversary, deciding on their next move. The distinct lack of animosity between Greene and Boxer enables a comradery to be evident but be not mistaken – the pair are fully capable of sizing one another up.
The visual studying Davies undertakes, tiny movements as only the novelist Greene would illicit against the more physical and energetic Boxer, tracing his way around the stage – A hawk keeping a closer eye and suitable distance. A commanding sense of direction is what ties this all together neatly, Alan Strachan’s toying with power dynamics not only dissecting the respect and adoration between two ex-servicemen but also opens the narrative’s warnings of unwavering trust.
And despite our coverage of the digital production, the wealth of live-in person theatre immediately comes to fruition. As the chalk shadow of the Kremlin presses on the scene, these set designs from Michael Pavelka are only truly understandable in their weight and gravitas. The iron piping forming a layout for Philby, and wife Rufa’s (Karen Ascoe) flat allows for access from the cast but draws the lines of secrets lurking without distraction.
Accompanying the production is a minimal sound design from composer Max Pappenheim – who uniquely comprehends the value of a scaled-back but intuitive score. Most of the show relies on dialogue, with a few almost inaudible cues for dramatic moments, enough for the heart to feel the vibration, subtle enough not to detract from the words. And enticing us in and out of the acts, a charming referential ditty to The Third Man, reinforcing the Brown’s mirror-pastiches to Greene’s screenplay.
The tenderness of betrayal and the honesty in deception are manipulated and laid bare throughout A Splinter of Ice; what at first may seem to audiences a spy-thriller is equally a tale of the love of these two friends, separated by time and allegiance, but pulled back by their comradery. Returning to the King’s Theatre in such a safe manner, with all the preparations in place without removing the majesty of theatre, there are few better examples of live theatre than the work of Strachan, Ford Davies, and Boxer. We’re proud to be back.
A Splinter of Ice runs at the King’s Theatre until July 17th, tickets can be purchased here