Thickening plots

The Private Life of Kim Philby

Rufina Philby <em>St Ermin's Press, 449pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 03166

When the Sunday Times Insight team was working on the book Philby, the Spy Who Betrayed a Generation, its reporters were much taken with a piece of verse from Kipling's Kim: "Something I owe to the soil that grew/More to the life that fed/But most to Allah, Who gave me two/Separate sides to my head."

In the 30 years since Insight's success in revealing one side of Philby's head - the professional KGB penetration agent - there have been no fewer than 157 further books that wholly or in part have gone over much the same ground. There can be scarcely a single reader interested in the espionage game who does not now know that Philby was recruited by the Russian intelligence service in 1934, after he had come to their attention while rescuing communists from the fascists in Vienna; that he wangled his way into the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) during the war, rose to be head of its anti-Soviet section and was being groomed to be the service's next chief when he screwed it all up and eventually had to flee, in 1963, to Moscow, where he spent the next 25 years.

But the other side of his head has remained largely in the shadows. He had four wives - Austrian, English, American and Russian - but only the American, Eleanor, has written about Philby the man, and she knew him for a shorter time than any of the others. What was Philby like when he got home after a hard day's spying? Did he talk about his work? Share his doubts? Reveal his innermost thoughts? Help with the housework? Enjoy family holidays? This latest episode in the Philby saga is an attempt to answer some of these questions. It's a four-layer cake. The icing is the memoirs of Rufina Philby, the last wife, a Russian who married him in 1971 and stayed with him, nursing him until his death in 1988. Then come some fragments of Philby's own writing, ranging from bits of his autobiography, My Silent War, cut because his Russian bosses did not like them or because Philby himself thought they were boring, to articles on motivation and how to behave when counter-intelligence officers try to force a confession from you.

The next layer is an essay by Mikhail Lyubimov, a senior KGB colleague of Philby's who served in London under diplomatic cover for three years, running operations against the Conservatives until 1964, when he was kicked out by the newly elected Labour government - "thus adding insult to injury".

The base layer is a very useful and meticulously researched examination of all the Philby literature by Hayden B Peake, a former CIA officer, who played a major role in getting all this material together and pushing for its publication. The irony would not have been lost on Philby himself. So having read the book, what do we now know about Harold Adrian Russell - "Kim" - Philby that we did not know before? Rufina tells a touching story of a considerate, amusing husband, who so hated to be alone in their Moscow apartment that he insisted on accompanying her to work in the morning and picking her up in the evening, who liked to cook but was appalled by how difficult it was to buy ingredients in Moscow, who hated big parties, suffered fragile health, became depressed from time to time and often drank too much.

Still, they got on well, and even when Philby's health deteriorated to the extent that his wife had to spend a lot of time looking after him, she did it willingly and without complaint. When he died she was devastated, and, looking back on her life, she feels she was privileged to have known him. But he never discussed his life as a spy with her and she never asked him about it.

We learn little from Philby's own writings. His memories of a childhood in India are faint and confused - so no psychological clues there as to what made him behave as he did as an adult. Except there is one intriguing little item about how he worshipped a slightly older boy on the boat back to Britain and tried to model himself on him. The boy had a stammer. Is it possible Philby's stammer was not genuine but deliberately acquired and then later honed when he realised it was an advantage in the spy world (no one could bully you into a quick, possibly incriminating reply)?

On long evenings I sometimes think of Philby's life and career and the mysteries that remain. Rufina tells of occasions when the KGB would suddenly announce that there was a threat to Philby and spirit him away to Siberia or the Caucasus. There they would keep him until the threat had passed. What was this threat? Could SIS or the CIA really have had hitmen out looking for the best-known traitor of the century? Or were those factions within the KGB that had been convinced that Philby was a British penetration agent suddenly pushing to arrest him and interrogate the truth out of him? And what about the strange meetings over the years with Graham Greene? Two old spies, on opposite sides of the cold war fence, meeting and drinking and chatting about . . . what exactly?

We know from recent biographies of Greene that this old SIS colleague of Philby's never stopped being a spy and all his life reported back to SIS anything he thought might interest it. And we know that the meetings in Moscow could never have taken place without KGB approval and that Philby reported back to the KGB everything that Greene had told him.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities here. If SIS could have persuaded Philby to come back to Britain by offering him immunity from prosecution, then such a propaganda coup would have greatly outweighed Philby's earlier damage: "Traitor tried out communism, hated it, came home." So Greene could have been given the job of gently sounding out Philby and reporting his reaction. Or both old spies were being used as conduits by their respective bosses. SIS told Greene what it wanted the KGB to learn, in the knowledge that he would pass it on to Philby, who would then report it to the KGB. The answer would come back via the same route in reverse. Implausible? Stranger things have happened in the spy world.

And the other mystery, not mentioned in this book or any other, is this: with the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire, the KGB, in the spirit of the new world order, made available some of its files to western authors. One of these authors, Genrikh Borovik, even called his book The Philby Files. It now turns out that Borovik and the other authors had access to only one Philby file and that there are another 18 still secret. Why?

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.