Anthony Blunt, the art historian and fourth man of the Philby-Burgess-Maclean spy ring, was only the second Briton ever to be stripped of his knighthood. The first was Roger Casement, whom Corin Redgrave portrayed on stage in 1995. Now, with his self-penned solo piece Blunt Speaking in the studio space of Chichester's Minerva Theatre, Redgrave has collected the set, as it were.
For an hour Redgrave's Blunt, his white-dyed mane rather more luxuriant than the original's, mixes comments on the events of his 1979 unmasking "as they occur" and anecdotes both personal and political which are intended to give us some kind of insight into the man. He even teaches us the first few bars of the Internationale.
But the real Blunt was distant, disengaged, even secretive, and not just about his double agent status, confessed to MI5 fifteen years before Margaret Thatcher announced it to the Commons. Of course, it can be as much a liberation as an obstacle to have to fabricate even personal stories about a nanny or the porter in Blunt's apartment block, never mind suppositious phone calls of support from Peter "Spycatcher" Wright.
But there comes a point at which trying to portray a personality when only minimal personal data is available becomes not so much a speculative exercise as a fanciful one. Add to that the need to engage the audience without misrepresenting Blunt's semi-detachment of manner (his sole moment of passion here is about being deprived of his K.C.V.O.), and the fact that with such a recent figure we feel we simply ought to know more than we do, and the difficulty of sounding any single clear note grows apparent.
So it is here. Redgrave addresses the audience directly as an audience, even though the setting is his flat. He nudges us gently into a number of equally gentle laughs, and once or twice shows a discreetly sardonic vein that passes unnoticed by most, as when this distant cousin of the Queen (Surveyor of whose Pictures he was) remarks in a crystal patrician accent, "I never really felt part of the class struggle." He ascribes his work for the Soviets to a simple desire for "beating Hitler".
But things never come into hard focus. Much of this is due to Blunt's character and the way he lived his life; Redgrave set himself a deceptively difficult task, of at once being faithful to such a figure and yet overcoming its resistance to being dramatised. In the end, unsurprisingly, it proves too much. This is a portrait in watercolours, if that; more often the combination of minor (and fictitious) detail with that central feeling of absence, not to mention the brevity of the piece, make it feel like a preparatory sketch for the real work.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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