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Burgess
Margarita Nazarenko and Gareth Pilkington
as Julia and Burgess

The spies who betrayed themselves

The true story of the Cambridge students who in the 1930s became long-term spies for the Soviet Union has long fascinated people, including playwrights. Corinna Lotz reviews A Morning with Guy Burgess

Journalist-turned-playwright John Morrison, who worked as a Reuters correspondent in Moscow during the 1970s and 1980s, has a hard act to follow, with his play, A Morning with Guy Burgess.

Alan Bennett wrote penetrating variations on the theme of the British upper class who became Soviet agents, most memorably An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. Bennett endowed his characters with his own quirky humour, mining the class ironies for all they were worth.

Morrison’s play provides a broad sweep of history and politics, looking at the Soviet side as well as the British. The opening up of more archives, letters and the telling of life stories over recent years has inspired Morrison to explore not only the personalities of those concerned, but also the way in that Stalinism twisted and destroyed the ideas of Marxism.

The most famous member of the 'Apostles' as they called themselves, was master-spy Kim Philby. Others were Guy Burgess, Donald McLean and Anthony Blunt who became the Queen’s Surveyor of Pictures. Why they chose to join the Communist Party and work for Soviet intelligence, and what eventually happened to them, is the stuff of high drama, involving sex, politics, comedy and tragedy.

At a notorious press conference in Moscow held in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Burgess and McLean revealed that behind the cover of stellar careers in the British Establishment, they had been passing war-time secrets to the Soviet Union. More and more of the truth was to leak out in the years to come, causing shockwaves and friction throughout the world of spooks.

There are many enjoyable moments as Burgess (Gareth Pilkington) educates the rookies in his school for spies, the 'Baker Street Irregulars', in the subtleties of appearing truly English. He revels in the often surreal lunacies of spy-dom.  When the oily Labour MP Tom Driberg (Charles Church) brings him a jar of marmalade from Britain, Burgess complains that it is from Sainsbury’s and not Fortnum and Mason. And, “Explaining the rules of cricket to a Russian is like explaining dialectical materialism to an Englishman,” he spouts.

Burgess

Through the character of Goronwy Rees, the Welsh academic and writer played by the smooth-talking Robin West, we get a glimpse into the shock caused amongst anti-fascists and Communist Party members by the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939, seen by many as a total betrayal.  “Stalin has stabbed the entire working-class movement in the back,” Rees exclaims. But Burgess defends Stalin’s line as realism and a bluff. History proved otherwise.

Burgess’ attitude to the pact and what happened after Stalin’s death, is relayed through flashbacks, reminiscences and a character of Morrison’s own creation – the young Julia Schmidt (Margarita Nazarenko). Her constant quoting of English proverbs to soothe awkward moments is often hilarious, as she quotes  “every cloud has a silver lining” and “look on the bright side”. It turns out that behind her schoolteacher façade, she too has a secret past which she is desperate to bring to light.

As events unfold, it becomes ever clearer that Burgess and the others who sought to help the Soviet Union in its fight against fascism have been neutralised and exploited by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Jacob Fortune as 'Peter'
Jacob Fortune as 'Peter'

Burgess and Maclean escaped going on trial for treason in Britain by being whisked into the Soviet Union as their covers were blown. But his Stalinist masters were so suspicious and nationalist that some believed that Burgess and his friends had never lost their allegiance to Britain. After being 'brought in' in 1951, Burgess and Maclean were secretly held in the Volga town of Kuibyshev. KGB officer (chillingly played by Jacob Fortune) 'Peter' tells Burgess that he was nearly sent to Siberia by Stalin’s monstrous security chief Beria.

Julia’s tragic story becomes the real indictment of Burgess’ acquiescence to Stalinism and provides the final dramatic moment. Did he betray his adopted country, the Soviet Union, more than Britain, the country of his birth?

Unfortunately, the serious question of why a group of high-flying, well-off Englishmen would seek to risk their lives, families and careers by changing their class and national allegiances is not explored. The way that their contribution and those of countless others who wanted to oppose fascism and work for Marxist and Communist ideals was undermined and eventually destroyed is touched upon, but not developed in this somewhat rambling, but fascinating production.

14 January 2011

A Morning with Guy Burgess written by John Morrison and directed by Dimitry Devdariani is at the Courtyard Theatre, Pitfield Street, Hoxton until 30 January.

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