The iconic theme music from the 1949 film, The Third Man, zithers across the necessarily sparsely occupied King’s theatre, setting the tone for the story about the complex relationship of two men to unfold.
In 1987, during the early days of Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestoika, writer Graham Greene travels to Moscow to attend a peace conference seemingly attended by an array of film stars and celebrities. While in the city, Greene pays a visit to his former MI6 boss and friend of 35 years, former spy and defector, Kim Philby. The play, from writer Ben Brown, whose award-winning West End play Three Days in May inspired the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour, is the result of a deeply researched project following his discovery of this unusual and little known of friendship.
Michael Pavelka’s tubular set that houses the rooms in the Philby flat, allowing a sense of movement through other spaces on an otherwise limited stage space, is lit with a frugal 40 watt light designed by Jason Taylor that seems appropriate to the place and time. It is a Moscow winter and although Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) is happed in his long black overcoat, he’s wearing shoes instead of boots and so has wet feet. Offering a ready welcome and hospitality, Philby’s Russian wife Rufa, played with convincing animated warmth and humour by Karen Ascoe, dries his shoes before leaving the men to get re-acquainted.
From the get-go, Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer) lays out the condition of ‘no questions’ but as they (Philby more than Greene) steadily neck several shots of vodka, before measures of red wine and whisky, that condition evaporates like a distillery’s angel’s share. The result from Ben Brown is the imagined conversation between these two men who inhabited worlds unknown to most of us. In an interweaving of art and reality, there is the intriguing debate as to which of them the Harry Lime character in Greene’s screenplay of The Third Man was based on. That point may have been inconclusive, but the play itself acts as a vehicle to tell Philby’s story along with the largely unknown relationship between the two men.
Greene was 83 years old when he visited Moscow in 1987 and Philby 75. In our current times of blind casting, it is encouraging to see actors of a similar vintage play these characters so well. This old-fashioned style of play, that has been infused with light wit throughout, narrates an interesting, revelatory story that marks a welcome return to live theatre.
A Splinter of Ice is directed by Dundee born Alan Strachan, with Alastair Whatley the Artistic Director of Suffolk based theatre company that produced the play.
13th – 17th July 2021 at King’s Theatre Edinburgh
Tour continues and is also available online via the Original Theatre Company website until 31 July 2021.