Author Alan Bennett's fascinating introduction to this play explains how he learned about a meeting between Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five spy ring, who escaped to Moscow in 1956, and Coral Browne, an Australian actress touring Moscow with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's production of Hamlet. One evening, Burgess, a disheveled alcoholic, burst, unannounced, into her dressing room where he was violently ill in her sink. When he finally left, he also absconded with her soap, cigarettes, makeup, and her own drink. Despite this less than auspicious meeting, she agreed to meet him for lunch the next day at his apartment. It is this real-life meeting, lunch, and its aftermath that provide the action for this play.
Though Burgess has been in Moscow for two years, he has nothing to do, has never learned Russian, and has discovered that the gay scene, of which he was a part in England, does not exist in Moscow. His only "friend" is a state-assigned young lover who plays the balalaika. As Burgess and Coral converse over lunch, they listen to an old recording by Jack Buchanan, again and again, he thinking of the past, while she remembering Jack Buchanan as the man she thought she would marry. Neither has much interest in politics. Burgess is starved for "gossip" from home, and both find Moscow dull. Burgess is particularly anxious to have Coral Browne take his measurements for his former Savile Row tailor so he can have him some new suits made. The suits in Moscow lack "style.
The plight of the exile, be it political or social, has always been a main theme for Bennett, and though he does not write this 1983 play to drum up sympathy for Burgess, who died in Moscow in 1963, just seven years after defecting, he succeeds in raising questions about one's sense of identification with one's country--where does it originate and why, and, ultimately, does such identification with this concept of "country" make sense if the country's positions are alien to whatever else one believes?
In this BBC production, Michael Gambon makes Burgess a plausible, understandable character, while Penelope Wilton, as Coral Browne, is an excellent foil. Coral is no intellectual, nor is she political, so her role here is to bring out Burgess so that he becomes more understandable to the audience. In this she succeeds admirably. This play, now twenty-five years old, brings to life that period in which people looked for spies behind every corner and looked toward the Soviet Union as "the enemy." Those days are gone forever. The production is now a bit dated, as a result of more recent terror, but Bennett's look at what inspires citizens to betray their country is pertinent and important. n Mary WhippleThe Uncommon ReaderThe Lady in the Van: Play (Faber plays)Bed Among the Lentils (Acting Edition)
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