The relationship between Greene and the notorious spy Kim Philby seems to be a source of enduring fascination. A new play by Ben Brown called A Splinter of Ice, being premiered this summer, recreates the meeting between the two men in February 1987 when Greene had dinner with his old friend at Philby’s flat in Moscow. The novelist had traveled to the still Soviet Union at the behest of President Mikhail Gorbachev for a peace conference. When asked what transpired, Greene was typically enigmatic, saying only, ‘I went alone, I had a private meeting, and I won’t say more than that’.
A Splinter of Ice will be streamed from 15 April to 31 July. All being ‘Covid-well’, it will be performed during a UK theatre tour from 8 June. Two venues already advertising it are The Festival Theatre, Malvern, 8-12 June and The Theatre Royal in Bath which is due to take bookings from 15 April. It is being directed by Alan Strachan for the Original Theatre Company and will star Oliver Ford Davies as Greene, Stephen Boxer as Philby and Sara Crowe as Philby’s wife Rufa.
The nature of what the two men discussed at their meeting is, of course, pure conjecture. It might have been immensely revealing or entirely commonplace. Greene did keep a diary during his trip to The Soviet Union in 1987 which is in the British Library but he makes no mention whatsoever of meeting Philby. What is known is that the two men did remain in contact following Philby’s defection in 1963, albeit intermittently. Their correspondence is to be found in archives in the USA in Washington D.C. and Boston. If one didn’t know anything about the remarkable background of the friendship one would be forgiven for thinking that the letters were just between two old acquaintances keeping in touch into their respective retirements. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that any sensitive material was redacted by the intelligence services years ago.
Ben Brown wrote the play in 2015 in the shadow of the inquiry into the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. The Salisbury Novichok nerve agent scandal and the very recent build-up of Russian troops on the Ukranian borders in the light of the latter’s moves to join NATO, have contributed to a recent ‘chilling’ of relationships between London and Moscow. These issues make A Splinter of Ice seem both prescient and sadly ironic as the encounter between Greene and Philby happened 34 years ago just as the world was living in hope that the end of the Cold War was about to take place.