Cell Mates @ Hampstead Theatre

Cell Mates @ Hampstead Theatre

It was the play that went wrong, before The Play That Goes Wrong. Even in 1995, Stephen Fry was a huge star, riding the crest of a career wave that saw him popping up in all kinds of roles, in all kinds of places. His appearance as the Russian mole, George Blake, in Simon Gray’s Cell Mates, was the final straw. He wrote a note to Simon Gray expressing his despair at his poor acting abilities (amazingly to everyone else) and fled London for France. Old friend Hugh Laurie attempted to make contact, and John le Carré wrote Fry a letter commiserating about the unintended consequences of fame and fortune. The play has not been seen again since. Until now.

Last night we were treated to a strong, experienced cast led by Geoffrey Streatfeild as George Blake. Blake is famous for all the wrong reasons: never one of the official Cambridge spy ring that included Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, he was the only one sent to prison. People say his Dutch heritage and unclear background allowed the authorities to punish Blake for all the crimes of the others. He received Britain’s longest ever prison sentence of 42 years, although the play and its accompanying programme confuse the exact length of his stay. His most notorious achievement on behalf of the KGB was to expose the plans for a so-called ‘audio’ tunnel into East Berlin. Yes, the Allies did build a tunnel to monitor electronic communications between the Russians, but the KGB knew about the tunnel before the first shovel hit the ground. Everything the Allies learned in the tunnel was misinformation, for which they had Blake to thank.

What Blake came to realise is that he would be in Wormwood Scrubs for at least 20 years, and that was if he kept out of trouble and behaved well throughout. By now of course, whatever the outcome, he would have been able to live as a free man in the UK, seeing his former British wife and children whenever they would let him. Instead, he remains to this day in Russia, having never returned to Britain. Blake had been a prisoner of war for 3 years in Korea, an episode that radicalised him and set him on his path towards Marxist socialism. He could not face 20 years of that.

Blake therefore enlisted the help of an intelligent Irishman, Sean Bourke, who had literary aspirations and, crucially, was due to be released soon. With Bourke on the outside, and some help from his Irish friends, Blake decided this was the man to spring him from The Scrubs. In an unintended consequence of his ludicrously long 42-year sentence, Blake won sympathy among the other inmates. They felt, as Blake did, that he had been unfairly treated.

George Blake’s memoirs, a heavily one-sided and turgid account of his life, written with KGB approval in Moscow, incensed the play’s author, the late Simon Gray. The play therefore relies more heavily on Sean Bourke’s account of his adventures with Blake from their meeting in the Scrubs to their incredible escape to Russia.

Last night’s performance really captured the tension and turbulent relationship between Blake and Bourke. Why did Bourke risk so much to help a man proven to be a traitor? He was already free when he sprung Blake over the wall with a makeshift ladder and spirited him away from the London police into the hands of the KGB in Moscow. The answer might lie in his book. Both men were writing competing and, it turned out, contradictory accounts of their relationship. There are rumours that Blake has recently recorded video interviews, in his native Dutch, for release after his death. Perhaps this final time, he will come clean. Few seem to expect that.

The Q&A with producer Greg Ripley-Duggan, Streatfeild and Philip Bird who plays both a KGB officer and a London landlord, was fascinating. Aimed at those very deeply interested in the Blake story, and also in the process of theatre, we learned that the latest dilemma to face the team is the absence of a Cyrillic font in the system they use to sur-title plays. Their performance next week needs to decide how to represent the words spoken in Russian. As most of the London audience don’t know Russian, they found themselves in Bourke’s shoes as Blake and his KGB handlers, and the excellent housekeeper played by Cara Horgan, rattled away in convincing Russian. So, what to put in the captions? An English translation would change the dynamic. It is an obstacle that nobody in the audience would have considered.

The producers and cast were coy about the involvement of Blake and his family this time around. There were hints, and some confidences which your correspondent is not prepared to break, as this was not a press Q&A but a private one for patrons of the theatre. Suffice to say that they are, at the very least, aware of this new production.

A more interesting observation that seemed lost on everyone present was that the stage surround had a very faint outline of the name Lenin across the top. It turns out that the entire play takes place, metaphorically, inside Lenin’s tomb. Which gives a twist on Blake’s closing speech: he tries to convince his tape recorder, and himself, that he is in the country of the future, that socialism is the answer to all the world’s ills. This speech, coming years after the demise of Lenin and Stalin and what they represented, must have felt hollow even as he spoke the words. Anthony Blunt and his friends were famously shocked by the hypocrisy and decay they found in Russia in the 1930s. Anyone living there, as Blake was forced to do from 1966, would have seen through the mirage almost immediately. It must have been a profound and depressing jolt.

What we are left with, as with all good spy stories, are a few known facts, and even more supposition. The play should not be viewed as a documentary. It changes some unimportant facts. For example, Simon Gray’s George Blake hurts his head during the prison escape but does not break his wrist, as the real Blake did. However, this is first an entertaining, amusing and tense play that is finally reinstated, bringing it to a new audience for whom tensions between Russia and the West feel new. Cell Mates communicates to a younger audience that there is nothing new here at all, and the Cold War didn’t stop when we were told it did.

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John le Carré at Southbank Centre, September 2017

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