BWW Reviews: A MORNING WITH GUY BURGESS, The Courtyard Theatre, January 13 2011
2011 marks the centenary of the birth of Guy Burgess of "Burgess, Philby and Maclean" fame - for fame it still is, despite the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Russia being better known these days for leggy tennis players and yacht-going oligarchs. The spies fame resonates beyond the narrow confines of a war that wasn't really a war and a dog (the use of atomic weapons) that didn't bark, because of those old favourites of British drama: class; deviance; power; and betrayal.
On a spare set at The Courtyard Theatre, Burgess's story is told in flashbacks, as he drinks himself to an early grave in grim post-Stalin, pre-Gorbachev Moscow. Teasing the tale out of the old soak is bright-eyed Russian / English, school-teacher / maid for the day, Julia, who has a secret of her own. As Burgess, Gareth Pilkington captures the middle-aged man's world-weariness and his yearning for one last visit to the Old Country, but it's difficult for an actor of 60 years of age to portray the glamour and burning political energy that possessed the twenty-something Burgess, particularly when the other actors are age-appropriate. Philby (Richard Holt), Maclean (Rich Keeble) and Blunt (Jacob Trenerry) are shown circling each other for years, in a world of double lives - Establishment figures, betraying the Establishment; gay men at a time when homosexuality was a crime; middle class professionals dedicated to the struggle of the Working Class.
In the second half, John Morrison wisely avoids the trap of spending much more time going over ground that will be familiar to many in the audience, and focuses his script on the mysterious Julia (winningly played by Margarita Nazarenko) and the reason why she is spending a morning with Guy Burgess. Suddenly the themes explored in the flashbacks are present in the here and now, as the audience realises that the choices between loyalty and betrayal, between people and ideas, between life and death explored in the first half, will be at the heart of the second half too. Julia's story also allows Morrison to tell of how the same Communist Centre that carefully cultivated the Cambridge undergraduates, dealt so savagely with its own citizenry.
With a subject as familiar as the Cambridge spies, there's probably not enough new history to carry a play over two hours long, nor is there enough dramatic tension between Julia and Guy, but by splitting the focuses of the two halves, Morrison's structure supports an evening of fine acting and leaves the audience with much to ponder on the nature of politics at the level of the superpower and the personal.
A Morning with Guy Burgess continues at The Courtyard Theatre until 30 January.