A Splinter of Ice at Cheltenham Everyman Theatre online
At the turn of the last decade, the ability of Ben Brown, with Alan Strachan as director, to thrillingly dramatise and insightfully illuminate political history was impressive. They are united again for A Splinter of Ice, with the additional directorial presence of Alistair Whatley, but the intrigue Brown’s previous plays provoked is notably lacking here.
The historical inspiration for this play is the relationship between Graham Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) and Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer), his former boss at MI-6. The play, with a decorous, authentic rustic aesthetic (courtesy of Michael Pavelka), is set in Philby’s Moscow home. Greene visits his friend while in Russia for the three-day, Soviet-sponsored International Forum for a Non-Nuclear World and the Survival of Humanity. Though, in reality, Greene was private about what was discussed, Brown presents an evening where conversations include Philby’s vehement faith to the communist cause and the parallels between Philby and Harry Lime in Greene’s The Third Man.
Mild secrecy and deception are interwoven to engender surprise, but the result underwhelms, mainly because the dialogue is too overburdened with Philby seemingly being continuously interviewed by Greene, as if he were mere inspiration for a future work rather than a long-standing friend.
When the play hints at the mental anguish Philby must have felt at being devoid of friendship in Moscow – moments which Boxer encapsulates with skilled physical subtlety and Tristan Shepherd aptly relays through his editing – it is nonetheless enthralling. In this way it is similar to Simon Gray’s Cell Mates in the theme of domestic incarceration in Soviet Russia. If this historical reality were further explored, perhaps it would have augmented the dramatic impact and prohibited the character of Philby’s wife Rufa (Sara Crowe) from feeling underused.
Instead, any moment of genuine insight when recreating the lengthy friendship or charming correspondence that the two historically shared is primarily disregarded. What is produced is an occasionally glacial, largely awkward encounter between the two that is unconvincingly framed as a psychological chess game – one that, overall, plays at gripping dramatic realism rather than potently embodying it.
Photos: James Findlay
A Splinter of Ice is available to stream from 15th April until 31st July 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.