The murky exchanges between the Russian and UK intelligence services that have captured so many column inches over the last year or so were bound to have an impact on the theatre. It might seem an apt time to reappraise two plays about cold war politics, and Alan Bennett’s pieces on Guy Burgess and Sir Anthony Blunt – two of the four great spies for the USSR produced by the British establishment – here presented at the King’s in a lush West End revival starring Nigel Havers and Diana Quick, certainly aim to do this.
But each is about far more than spooks. In An Englishman Abroad we witness Bennett’s account of the real-life meeting between Aussie actress Coral Browne, in Moscow while touring a production of Hamlet at the height of the cold war, and Burgess. But although the piece speaks of Burgess’s treason, it is at least as much about exile, and the exploration of a dandyish, ostensibly avuncular old man whose tragedy is that he can never return home.
A Question of Attribution focuses on a meeting between Blunt and the Queen, for whom he worked as chief curator of art. Here again, the story of Blunt’s espionage activities is alluded to, as the story of his spying is in the process of being uncovered, but it’s more a metaphor than a central plank of narrative. Instead, the two discuss the difference between the counterfeit and the real, and whether this is important in art – very much a parallel to Blunt’s bogus patriotism.