In David Morley’s play ‘A Cold Supper Behind Harrods’, two of the four characters - Leo Marks and Vera Atkins were real people - secret agents working in Special Operations Executive during WW2. Martin Woodruff and Trish Peroni, actors playing these characters, have delved into their past and tell us something about their role during the war and what it’s like to portray someone who existed not so long ago.
Martin Woodruff on Leo Marks
"Playing someone who really existed puts some obligation on the actor to learn about him and to try, within the script’s limits, to incorporate some truth in his representation. Doing that for this production has been an absorbing exercise.
"My starting point was Marks’s memoir of his wartime years, Between Silk and Cyanide. It’s a great read, but one must beware with autobiography that, deliberately or otherwise, the author may be manipulating perceptions to create a favourable appearance for posterity. We gather that he could be prickly and difficult, but that admission is partly undermined by the book’s broader impression that he was a victim - a lone voice against the arrogance and mediocrity of his superiors. One is left suspecting there is some truth in Vera’s line, ‘You don’t know the whole story.’ The book strongly reveals his sharp intellect, brilliance in making and breaking codes, and especially an acute, if caustic, sense of humour. It is in places very funny, and it seemed important to try to show that aspect of the man.
"Various smaller features and incidents have been incorporated into the play, but others have been adapted for dramatic purposes. If his account is accurate, he was indeed an inveterate cigar-smoker, and he did bring to work his mother’s sandwiches containing black-market chicken. Other things have been changed though. Vera Atkins and Colonel Buckmaster have only peripheral roles in the book, as they worked elsewhere in the organisation, and Marks’s criticism of his masters is actually directed at other people entirely. Similarly, the ploy of sending a message into the field signed off as if from a German telegrapher is recorded, but it was done by somebody else. Marks was not the only person to suspect the circumstances of SOE’s agents in occupied Europe were not as they seemed.
"Ultimately, the play works because it raises questions but doesn’t seek to prescribe all the answers. As in life, things are complicated, people are inconsistent and often act irrationally, there is another side to every argument, and nobody has a monopoly over relevant facts. In this light, uncertainties and ambiguities about aspects of Leo Marks’s character serve to make him a more realistic human being."
Trish Peroni on Vera Atkins
"Vera was born in 1908, so in 1997 when the play is set, she would have been 89 whereas the script says she is ‘late 70s’. She reveals little of her Jewish / Romanian upbringing. Having been educated in France and Switzerland, fluent in several languages, she escaped the rise of anti-semiticism in Europe, coming to London in 1937 but not becoming a British national until 1944.
"In 1941 she joined the Special Operations Executive set up by Churchill, soon becoming assistant to Colonel Maurice Buckmaster; her chief role was to recruit and deploy special agents in occupied France, with particular responsibility in caring for the needs of female agents. Despite the later criticism of the work done by the SOE, Vera was loyal to her agents, seeing them all off in person, knowing that they may not return but providing them with back stories and personal effects to back these up.
"Vera’s most notable achievement however was after the war when, despite opposition, she went to France and Germany to try to discover the fate of missing agents, including 14 women, most of whom had not survived. She persuaded the War Office to give official recognition to ‘her girls’ as having been killed in action - most died in concentration camps. She also carried out war crimes interrogations and subsequently testified at a number of prosecutions – she was reputed to be one of the most skilful interrogators of war criminals.
"The SOE has been accused of complacency and even betrayal, and Vera Atkins may well have been party to this; but she was strong, loyal, and determined. Did she make some wrong decisions – possibly; did she believe in what she did – my gut says she did. Everything she says and does has meaning; she is a joy to portray."
A Cold Supper Behind Harrods
Tue 12 - Sat 16 December, 7.30PM