Neil Dowden in North London
17 December 2017
The 1995 West End premiere of Simon Gray’s play Cell Mates was overshadowed by the sudden disappearance of co-lead actor Stephen Fry after only a few performances. It turned out he had a sort of breakdown after some negative reviews, though on the whole the critical reception for the production had been good. Although he was replaced, the show never recovered and closed early. Hampstead Theatre has revived Cell Mates for the first time since the original debacle, so the question is whether it stands up as a piece of dramatic writing free of surrounding controversy 22 years on.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Certainly, the story it tells is fascinating. It centres on the relationship between the notorious British spy George Blake — who was imprisoned in 1961 after being exposed as a double agent for the Soviet Union — and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke who helped him escape from Wormwood Scrubs five years later. We see their initial meeting in prison, then lying low in a London bedsit and finally Bourke joining Blake in his Moscow apartment where he had fled. But the close friendship between the two men is put under the severest pressure when Bourke is told he cannot return to Ireland.
Cell Mates is very much a character study, not a spy drama. The most exciting bits of action — Blake breaking out of prison and later fleeing across the East German border — happen between scenes. What Gray focuses on is the deteriorating relations between this odd couple who were initially united by both being outsiders in Britain (Blake had a Dutch-Egyptian background) and being fiercely anti-establishment. At first Blake is completely dependent on Bourke, practically and emotionally, during his escape bid. But once they are in Moscow, he exerts control over his younger, naïve companion. Gray implies that there is a homoerotic attraction (at least on Blake’s side), though motivation remains elusive in this world of deception.
Ambiguity lies at the heart of the play. Is the KGB preventing Bourke from leaving because he could be a security risk, or is it the ruthless Blake who though now living in his “spiritual home” is afraid of being lonely? Then there is the issue of budding writer Bourke wanting to publish his account of his involvement with Blake: is that one reason why he helped him in the first place? Blake, who is also tape-recording his memoirs, wants to present his version of events to justify his treachery as a self-sacrifice to the higher cause of communism; is he trying to stop Bourke from challenging this narrative? Gray explores themes of personal as well as national betrayal and of mental as well as physical imprisonment.
Cell Mates is essentially an intimate two-hander with its strength being the way it shows how the two protagonists are locked together, rather than widening out to more political issues during the Cold War. It is less successful in comic passages involving supporting characters – a Communist sympathizer rowing with his doctor girlfriend attending the injured Blake in the London bedsit whilst the unsuspecting landlord’s agent comes to inspect the property; two KGB minders speaking “funny” foreign English and a deferential female housekeeper singing a boozy “Danny Boy” with Bourke in the Moscow flat.
Director Edward Hall make sure the shifting psychological dynamics keep us guessing, though there could be more tension in the uncertain outcome. Designer Michael Pavelka’s sets change from spartan prison room to dingy bedsit to imposing apartment with impressive speed.
Geoffrey Streatfeild conveys both Blake’s easy charm and his enigmatic remoteness. Though he can be coldly manipulative at other times he seems genuinely needy, as someone who regards the ends as justifying the means but who ultimately deceives himself as well as others. In contrast, Emmet Byrne’s impetuous Bourke comes across as boyishly loyal and spontaneous in his affections but recklessly getting himself into trouble.
As an interesting epilogue, Bourke died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 49 in Ireland in 1982, while Blake is still living on a state pension in Moscow at the age of 95 – though Vladimir Putin’s right-wing authoritarian Russia is a far cry from Blake’s idealized vision of the “country of the future”.
Emmet Byrne and Geoffrey Streatfeild. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Amir Arison and Eric Sirakian. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
But still I recommend this production. Why? It is a rare study in internalized prejudice, both of race and class. Other works that struggle with discrimination bring home a moral or create a black-and-white world. Amir is a Brechtian anti-hero, despicable and cowardly. He feels a strong emotional connection to Hassan, but he believes in the difference between them. His love is not enough to combat the Pashtun world, which reinforces both prejudices. And the disparity in rank between the boys is useful to him; it builds his flagging confidence. The tension between friendship and self-love is delicately developed on stage without excess explanation or excuses.
Some critics found Amir as antihero alienating. We don’t see his redeeming traits until the end of Act II. Croft allowed the problematic script to dictate his choices. Brecht’s plays encourage us to get close to the characters before introducing the Verfremdung devices, repeating the pattern of involvement and distancing throughout.
Amir’s narrative about his life in California and the love scenes blur the subplot, but once the play returns to Amir as he confronts his cowardice, tensions rise and the drama finds its niche. But then the script goes into overkill as the details about Sohrab, Hassan’s son, moved from horrifying to superfluous. I felt manipulated, but my friend, an accomplished woman of the theatre, wept when Amir rescued Sohrab from the Taliban and his abusive keeper.
I want to give a shout-out to Amir Arison, a stage actor best known for his role on the long-running television series “The Blacklist.” He plays both our narrator and Amir. He must age from a boy of about 10 years old to a man in his thirties and is on stage throughout. The Kite Runner marks his Broadway debut.