Two seductions, two deaths, one apartment, 60 years apart. This is the background to the double bill Spy Plays by writer David Thame at Above The Stag theatre this month. Kompromat, which was a major hit at the Vaults Festival last year, is inspired by the 2010 death of MI6 agent Gareth Williams whose body was found zipped into a sports bag in the bathroom of his Pimlico flat.
David Thame’s new play is London/Budapest set in the Cold War period of 1955. Adam de Hegedus, the secretive author (under pseudonym Rodney Garland) of one of Britain’s first gay bestsellers The Heart in Exile, takes his afternoon sauna pick-up to a Pimlico flat – but with spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defecting to the Soviet Union, espionage and paranoia is everywhere. David Thame told us more about these real life mystery stories.
Hi David, had you always intended for the two plays Kompromat and London/Budapest to be performed together and why?
Absolutely, they are a pair. These two episodes in gay (and spy) history were always meant to be together, despite being 60 years apart, because some things do not change: desire, disguise, deceit, risk, hope, failure. That’s what these plays are all about.
There feels like a continuum between the two stories as both are based in Pimlico flats, be it 60 years apart?
The same problem of power, and overpowering attraction, is in both dramas. Seeing them together helps explain today and yesterday, I hope.
Your new play London/Budapest is about Adam de Hegedus, who was he?
Adam de Hegedus was a Hungarian who came to live in London in the late 1920s, when he was about 23/24. He was an aristocrat but bright (he had a doctorate and spoke seven languages), chatty, fun, and he mixed well, he knew literally everyone from bus drivers and car mechanics, through Guy Burgess to senior politicians to the very, very top. For instance, he’d been invited to dinner one evening, and thought he recognised a man on the other side of the table. That profile, he told himself, is very familiar. And then it dawned on him: he’d seen the profile on coins. The man opposite was the King. He wrote a dozen books and novels including the UK’s first gay best seller, The Heart in Exile.
How did you first get interested in him?
Iwas reading about the Bright Young Gay Things of the 1950s – people like the painter John Minton, and historian Angus Heriot – and stumbled on de Hegedus.
Can you tell us about The Heart in Exile?
It was published in 1953 and it’s well worth a read, especially if you like Grade A period misery and self-loathing. But all that bleakness comes with the big culturally-significant exception that a pair of gay lovers are eventually allowed a happy-ish ending. That is amazingly brave at a time when imagining a way for gay people to live successfully or happily was very much against the grain. So a period piece. Adam’s thriller The Troubled Midnight is a lot more fun, but you’ll struggle to get hold of a copy.
There remains mystery about de Hegedus’s death? Was it a cover up and why?
Lots of mystery here. For a long time it was believed he died sometime in the late 1950s having lived as a down-and-out in London. But really nobody knew. So I did the research and put the record straight, showing he died in October 1955. In the process I unearthed almost all his official files. Almost all, because although I know there is an MI5 file (it is mentioned in his Home Office file) I have yet to get hold of it, and I strongly suspect the CIA have one too, though when I approached them their answer was beautifully opaque.
The very unusual cause of death, and the extreme hurry to get him cremated, leave a lot of questions. His death just before the 1956 Hungarian uprising is suggestive. He may well have been a spy of some kind.
This is very much the Burgess and Maclean Cambridge Spy Ring era – Guy Burgess was gay and Donald Maclean bisexual, do you bring that background into London/Budapest?
Definitely. Adam de Hegedus knew both Burgess and Maclean. He used to go drinking with Burgess, but then who didn’t? It’s pretty clear they had a brief affair of some kind. A one-nighter I expect, Adam wasn’t Guy’s type.
Why do you think so many of these Cold War spies were gay men?
Living a double life was part of being gay in the 1950s. And I can well imagine how the lively, socially-mixed world of secret gay London felt a thousand miles away from the rigid, right-wing, family values regime that ran the country. Why be loyal to such a government? I wouldn’t spy for the Soviets like Burgess did, but I can understand what motivated them. The irresponsible half of me wants to say well done, lads. Big thumbs up.
In Kompromat, which is inspired by the death of MI6 agent Gareth Williams, what does your play suggest might have happened to him and why?
Lots of stories are in circulation. One of them, which has its origins in stories told by a Russian defector, suggests a honeytrap involving a Russian-backed agent called Lucas. I’m picking up that rumour, only my agent is a rent boy from Luton, and it’s his story we hear in Kompromat.
Kompromat means ‘compromising material’ in Russian, do you think being gay played a part in the ‘body in the bag’ death?
God yes. Definitely.
Does the play explore who might have been responsible for the death, was it a foreign state or organised crime gang or a sex game gone wrong?
Sex game gone wrong – no, that’s bonkers. Zipping yourself into a North Face bag is all but impossible. But organised crime/foreign state? Bit of both, in my version. The Russian government is basically a wing of the Mafia, so who can tell the difference?
Can you tell us about the actors and director of the two productions?
Peter Darney, the director, is the author of 5 Guys Chillin’, the (now international) hit about chemsex. He’s amazing, a more natural and sympathetic director is impossible to imagine. Adam and Tom are played by Guy Warren-Thomas, who is brilliant at capturing the mix of pride and vulnerability in both characters, and Max Rinehart, who plays Zac and Reg, makes a very convincing killer not once but twice, which I promise is a compliment.
Have you always been interested in spies?
Isn’t everyone? Secrets, lies, noticing things, asking the right questions, carefully managing your public appearance… not just the basics of spying, but the basics of a good night out.
What else are you working on currently?
Mother/Daughter is touring this autumn. The first half is a night out on the piss that goes badly wrong, the second an afternoon in the kitchen that goes (eventually) a bit right. This is a double bill about our sense of belonging in 2020. Please come!
Photos by Joel Ryder.