Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The First Tour

A Splinter of Ice

Original Theatre Company , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Mold , July 6, 2021
A Splinter of Ice by Original Theatre Company “How long has it been?” runs the fourth line in Ben Brown's play.

The question is asked by traitor-spy Kim Philby in his Moscow apartment to his rare visitor from outside. In the case of erstwhile friend Graham Greene the interval has been thirty-five years.

The gap in theatre is not so long. The last tour to feature on this site happened on 12th March 2020. The re-beginning of performance is underway, the process both cautious but steady. The cities across Britain are doing it at speeds that vary. A performance has yet to take place in Cardiff or Swansea. A few tours are underway. John Godber's “April in Paris” has been revived. So too has David Mamet's “Oleanna”, an appropriate revisit for the critical temper of the times. Rosie Sheehy, award-winner in Theatr Clwyd's “Uncle Vanya” of 2017, is winning plaudits.

Theatr Clwyd is first to break the ice in Wales and receive a touring production. The three tours, albeit different in content, have a factor in common. The climate is still uncertain, producers and venues having small idea as to how readily audiences will return. The tours above are two-handers . Ben Brown's “A Splinter of Ice” has a cast of three but is essentially a dialogue of two. Karen Ascoe as Philby's fourth wife, Rufa, plays a small but important role, contributing to the theme of a life-architecture built on secrets.

The era is 1987 and the Soviet Union has four years of life to run. Its army is mired in its hopeless war in Afghanistan. Writer Brown sews his opening with references from the day. Greene is in Russia for a glasnost conference on peace. He has the company of familiar names: Mailer, Kristofferson, Ustinov, Vidal.

Philby is aware that Greene has a dogged biographer on his track. Norman Sherry has been ten years at his task and not a word has yet appeared. “The less said the better as far as I'm concerned” says Greene. Philby certainly gets the larger part over the famously elusive author in a discursive, dramatically slack script. He sketches this last part of his life, a heart condition due to end it within the year. The summer heat of Russia is intense. Potatoes are peeled while sitting in a cold bath. His conversion, he reveals, goes back to Vienna in 1934, the fight against the coup by Dollfuss. The resistance, the defenders of the republic, he says, took to the city sewers in flight.

The script has some verbal playing with “the Third Man”. Philby takes Harry Lime to be a coded version of himself. Greene is sceptical. He himself has Harold as a name and lime, he says, is itself a shade of green.

Much of the dialogue entails Greene feeding his host prompts for episodes from the past. “What did you do next?” or “What happened when..?” Philby fills in the gap: “Let me set the scene for you…” The fate in detail of two young Georgians shot within minutes of being infiltrated across the border has an implausibility of confession to it.

Yet “A Splinter of Ice” has much pleasure to it. It is in part the sense of event, the first theatre in a year and a quarter. It is in part the pleasure of two actors at the peak of their art. Stephen Boxer was born in 1950, Oliver Ford Davies in 1939. Decades of craft and experience are evident in every finely calibrated movement and syllable.

After the months of television there is an initial perceptual jolt that there are no edits, no time-jumps. Michael Pavelka's detailed Moscow apartment in its mustardy-yellow detail is a frame; the action is all in the human figures. At the hands of director Alan Strachan, with Alastair Whatley, small things matter. A jawline slightly tightens, an eye darts sideways, a mouth bends in disagreement. It is an art that demands our attention.

Thematically “A Splinter of Ice” goes to an old divide. All humans are either Platonists or Aristotelians, said Borges. On the one side are those who need a totality of explanation, a system that has no room for exception. It is the great solace of conspiracy theory. On the other hand are the empiricists who accept paradox, contradiction. Greene, the novelist, is attached to a great system of belief but he is, he says, not a very good Catholic. After the gap of decades he observes of his host, as he pours yet another drink, “you still have your chilling certainty.”

Philby tries out on him the similarities between the spy and the novelist. Both are outsiders; they manipulate, they kill off characters. Except, says Greene, mine do not die in real life while yours do.

Another author, John le Carré, has denounced Philby as without faith or home. Certainly retirement as a KGB general is a homeless kind of ending. But the faith is fierce. “You can't betray what you never belonged to” he asserts.

The need for totality extends to passing over Russia's invasions. The Baltic states, the war in Finland, the pact with Hitler are explained away. As for Poland's partition “he needed a buffer.” In a declaration of ego over truth of insight he declares “betrayal of self is the worst betrayal of all.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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