Actor Geoffrey Streatfeild talks Cell Mates at the Hampstead Theatre
- Credit: Archant
Cell Mates, the spy story famous for its star Stephen Fry vanishing mid-run, gets its first revival since 1995 at Hampstead Theatre
A treacherous double agent breaking out of Wormwood Scrubs down a ladder made of knitting needles sounds like the stuff of fiction.
But George Blake did just that in 1966 with the help of his former Irish cell mate Sean Bourke. The pair fled to Cold War Moscow where 95-year-old Blake still lives today, drawing a KGB pension.
The late, great playwright Simon Gray turned this extraordinary episode into Cell Mates, which gained notoriety when Stephen Fry had a very public breakdown and vanished mid-run. Unperformed since 1995, the comic drama is revived at Hampstead Theatre with Geoffrey Streatfeild playing Blake.
“It’s known for all the wrong reasons and became more famous for the off stage events,” says Streatfeild, whose career spans lead roles at the RSC, The Thick of It, The Hollow Crown and more recently Wild Honey at Hampstead,
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“What got lost among the myth was that the play was a massive hit. Simon Gray thought it was his best play for years, so it’s a real joy try to recover the play from that unfortunate association.”
Through his trademark finely crafted dialogue, Gray explores betrayal, personal freedom, the limits of friendship and the habit of deception, which Streatfeild says began early for the charming, charismatic Blake.
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“After researching Blake’s background I’ve gone from thinking of him as a sociopath to a very complex human being in an extreme situation who made a series of small choices which led to consequences played out on an epic scale.
“He wasn’t even called Blake, and he wasn’t English. He grew up in Holland half Dutch half Egyptian with a Jewish father. He was an outsider who was never one of us. He didn’t fit in.”
At the outbreak of War, Blake’s mother and sisters fled to England without telling him, leaving the 17-year-old to work for the Dutch underground before finding his way to Britain through Belgium France and Spain.
“He changed his name, joined the navy and started to work for the Intelligence Service. He had always existed under the radar pretending to be something he wasn’t. It was a psychological state of mind that was second nature to him.”
After a spell as a prisoner in the Korean war, his experience of seeing American bombers decimating small villages led to him defecting, turning in MI6 agents and a CIA mole to the KGB.
Caught and sentenced in 1961 to a 42 year stretch, Blake’s “psychological journey” to betray his country and leave his wife and three children for exile in Russia, is something Streatfeild is having to understand.
“The play asks questions such as how does a man labelled a traitor justify the betrayal of his country and how do you go on to live with no remorse and hope that history will vindicate you? He’s still in Moscow having seen the Communist ideal he fought for crumble, and still maintains he did the right thing.”
But it seems the central bond in the play between Blake and Bourke was genuine.
“On one level he used this petty criminal to escape from prison, but what saves him from being a cold hearted manipulator is the platonic but loving bond they have. They became co-dependent sharing a flat in Russia with the KGB not really trusting them.It was a genuine relationship. Two equally extreme characters meet and pull off the crime of the century. It’s a farcical situation you couldn’t make up.”
Streatfeild says Gray’s witty writing “seems naturalistic but the more you play it, the more you realise it’s intricately constructed, with two characters who use humour as a way of negotiating their problems.”
He adds: “I hope people leave with a greater understanding of why George did what he did and the humanity within him rather than the less laudable aspects of his character. Hopefully we can do justice to a play that never got to fulfil its potential.”
Cell Mates runs until January 20. hampsteadtheatre.co.uk