A question of deception

Our spring season includes a double bill of plays by Alan Bennett, the much loved writer of such classic plays as Talking Heads, History Boys and The Lady In The Van.

Single Spies, a double bill of Bennett’s highly acclaimed plays An Englishman Abroad and A Question Of Attribution, promises a night of gripping theatre that delves into the murky story of the Cambridge Spy Ring and two of its most famous conspirators.

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Blame James Bond – or at least his creator Ian Fleming – but the British have long had a fascination with spies and espionage. Another great British fascination, we are often told, is with class. So it makes sense that some of the best-loved works by Alan Bennett, a playwright with a unique gift for capturing the nuances of British life, grew out of a story which contains elements of both: that of the Cambridge Five.

In terms of novels about spies, the Cambridge Five story is actually much closer to the world of John Le Carre than Ian Fleming. The five were mainly upper class young men, all of whom were recruited as Soviet spies while at Cambridge University in the 1930s. The men were Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and – probably – John Cairncross. He was identified as the ‘fifth man’ in the group by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, but other names have been put forward, and it is possible that the group was larger than five.

Bennett himself said of the group, “I liked the notion of the Cambridge spies betraying their class; I liked them two-timing it. It’s something I can’t resolve in my mind; I resolve it by writing about it.”

All of the group went on to hold influential positions in the British establishment, mainly within the Foreign Office or MI6. Blunt – the oldest of the group – became a professor of art history, and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

Single Spies focusses on two members of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt; their stories told in РAn Englishman Abroad  originally a TV play for the BBC, and A Question Of Attribution, which premiered at The National Theatre in 1988, alongside the stage version of An Englishman Abroad.

The first play deals with Guy Burgess’ life in Moscow after his defection to the Soviet Union alongside Donald Maclean in 1951. It’s based on the true story of a meeting between an actress, Coral Browne, and Burgess himself, in 1958. Browne was in Moscow playing Gertrude in a touring production of Hamlet.

The second play of the double-bill is A Question Of Attribution, which centres around Anthony Blunt, and his role as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – the personal art advisor to her Majesty. It was this job that allowed Bennett to write one of his most famous scenes, in which the Queen herself questions Blunt over the question of fakes in art. One of the sub-texts in the play is the extent to which the Queen is aware that Blunt is a former Soviet agent. After she has left, an assistant asks Blunt what they were talking about. He replies, “I was talking about art. I’m not sure that she was.”

Blunt was eventually publicly exposed as a Soviet agent in 1979 (he had confessed to the government and intelligence services in 1964), and stripped of his knighthood shortly afterwards, although he was never prosecuted, and remained in England until his death in 1983.

Burgess died in Moscow in 1963, aged just 52, after several years of alcohol dependance. Unlike Maclean, his fellow defector, who became a respected Soviet citizen, Burgess never adapted to life in the USSR. He remained, always, an Englishman abroad, refusing to learn Russian, and ordering his suits from a tailor in Savile Row. No wonder, perhaps, that he captured Bennett’s imagination.

Single Spies stars Nicholas Farrell (The Iron Lady), Belinda Lang (2point4 Children) and David Robb (Downton Abbey, Wolf Hall). It will be with us at The Marlowe Theatre from Tuesday 8 to Saturday 12 March.

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