The theatre world has had to be extremely flexible and willing to adapt to circumstances over the last 16 months (as has everything else of course, but I’m not writing about that!) Carefully laid plans have been subject to rapid change in order to get the end product into the public arena and the natural order of these things has duly been upset. A good case in point is the Original Theatre Company’s production of A Splinter Of Ice. Originally planned to premiere as a live performance last spring with a filmed streamed version to follow this summer, the actuality has been the reverse. The video was made available back in March and continues to be online; the live show is currently touring – as long as nobody in the company receives the dreaded track and trace ping.
Ben Brown’s play takes place shortly before the USSR ceased to be the USSR and concerns a meeting (this is a fictionalised account) between the spy Kim Philby and novelist Graham Greene. The former used to be the latter’s boss when he worked at MI6 and the two men have not met since Philby’s final physical defection. There’s a lot of old ground to cover and cover it they do in a lengthy scene in which the two men seek for clarification from the other about why they each acted as they did. While this is sometimes interesting the proceedings are dripping with exposition to the point where it becomes difficult to care. And as most of it is to do with stuff that the other man would either know or could have worked out, it is clearly for the benefit of the uninitiated in the audience. Greene becomes a quasi-chat show host inviting his guest to reminisce – “Then what did you do?”, “How did that make you feel?” becomes the order of questioning; it’s a bit of a blunt instrument.
The second half is more interestingly dynamic as the nature of loyalty and the repercussions of betrayal (personal and national) are explored. Philby’s need to follow an ideal is exposed as the root cause of many untimely deaths while Greene’s apparent loyalty to a national traitor is put under the microscope. It’s an elegantly written piece of dialogue between a pair of interesting characters but at its heart is almost as cold and clinical as the ice of the title and I didn’t feel fully engaged with either man. It is also a play that might have been better served on radio as the visual element is all but subsumed under a torrent of ideas and evasive explanations.
Theatre veterans Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer are ideally cast as Greene and Philby respectively and it easy to believe that they were/are great friends. The two actors bring their consummate skills to the fore and give us performances of subtlety and distinction and with the camera getting up close they clearly understand the power of a quizzical look or a wry half smile. Both exude a somewhat world weary air and a healthy dose of cynicism about the events they chew over. Although it is basically a two hander, Philby’s fourth wife Rufa makes a few brief appearances – mainly to drop a vital piece of information to Greene while Philby is doing the washing up. Sara Crowe makes a much as she can of this underwritten character but that isn’t really saying a lot.
Sensitively part directed by another veteran, Alan Strachan (together with OTC artistic director Alastair Whatley) it has, as with all the company’s filmed product over the last year or so, quality stamped all over it. Videoed on stage at the Everyman Cheltenham on a well thought out autumnal set from Michael Pavelka with carefully crafted lighting and sound from Jason Taylor and Max Pappenheim, it’s another steady production from OTC to add to their growing online portfolio. This is a slow burn of a play which cannot help but conjure up the spectres of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and, particularly, Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, and it will please lovers of Greene’s novels as it investigates many of the writer’s favourite themes and ideas. I’m not sure there was much more to be gained by seeing it live though. That said it is to be hoped that the current tour will be going well unimpeded by the dreaded track and trace ping which then requires the quarantine which is regularly undermining so many live shows at the moment.
A Splinter Of Ice is available on the Original Theatre Company website – click here
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