Master Class

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

14/10/2006 - 11/11/2006

Production Details

By David Pownall
Directed by ROSS JOLLY

Lighting Design by PHIL BLACKBURN

Amusement, Music and Menace!

One of Circa’s greatest hits, Master Class returns as part of the theatre’s 30th Birthday celebrations. First produced in a sell-out extended season in 1986, Master Class opens in Circa One on Saturday 14th October at 8pm and runs until 11th November.

Starring Ray Henwood as Stalin, and David McKenzie as Prokofiev – both from the original cast – joined by Danny Mulheron as Shostakovich, and Peter Hambleton as Zhdanov, Master Class is again under the hand of one of Wellington’s leading directors, ROSS JOLLY.

And, Master Class is a play that makes unusually high demands of the cast – each must play the piano live on stage!

A smart, funny play, full of a powerful mix of amusement, music and menace, Master Class is set in 1948, in an anteroom of the Kremlin where Josef Stalin, and his henchman Zhdanov, have ‘invited’ leading Russian composers of the day, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich to justify their work. Stalin is determined that all music must be ‘purged’ of its elitist tendencies, and made more accessible to the common people.

The atmosphere is tense as Stalin conducts a droll, deadly game of psychological warfare, which has a surprising and shocking conclusion.

Director, Ross Jolly says, “When the idea for reprising Master Class was mooted I was delighted. Master Class is one of the best scripts I have ever worked on, with a fine blend of menace, music, mayhem and humour that is extremely appealing. For sheer excellence and entertainment this script is hard to beat.

“Master Class is a play that is always dramatic, often hilarious, and ultimately extremely moving. During the first season in 1986 I was amazed at the intensity of the audience response. The play not only had them in stitches, but also touched their hearts, and so many people put it high on their list of memorable theatrical moments.

“I am very lucky to have such a dream cast, including two of the ‘the originals’ for this revival.  And we are having a ball!

The musical content is challenging, but as each actor, including novice pianoforte student Peter Hambleton, nails his respective pieces and sings his heart out, their achievements are a sheer delight.

“The power and passion of this play is unforgettable. Audiences last time laughed, were surprised, shocked, and moved – they loved it!”

Zhdanov                     PETER HAMBLETON
Prokofiev                    DAVID McKENZIE
Shostakovich              DANNY MULHERON
Stalin                          RAY HENWOOD

Stage Manager                       Eric Gardiner
Technical Operator                Marcus McShane
Music Director                        David McKenzie
Costumes                                Gillie Coxill
Sound                                      Morgan Samuel , Ross Jolly
Set Construction                     Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Scenic artist                            Eileen McCann
Publicity                                  Claire Treloar
Graphic Design                       Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography                           Stephen A'Court
House Manager                      Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House                       Linda Wilson

Theatre ,

2 hrs 25 mins, incl. interval

For music lovers and historians

Review by Lynn Freeman 20th Oct 2006

Twenty years after Circa last performed David Pownall’s play Master Class, set in 1948 in the old Kremlin in the old USSR, two of that cast are back in the same roles, as is the director, Ross Jolly.

In Master Class, Stalin the tyrant who’s running out of time and energy is now yearning for his innocent past after counting up the 20 million dead under his regime. He’s not crippled by conscience – it bursts in occasionally during maudlin moments then is banished as he remembers that he is, after all, the "life giving force of Socialism".

Here Stalin directs his frustration towards Russia’s two musical geniuses, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. They must pay for their success, for their brilliance, for dominating Russian music and for not playing the game – Prokofiev for having collaborated with the West and traitors to produce his music, Shostakovich for being a "melancholy bastard" writing depressing, gut wrenching atonal music rather than uplifting tunes that raise the spirits of the Russian people in these difficult times.

Stalin plays good cop/bad cop with his culture-hating offsider, Zhdanov – until we find they are both bad cops, capable of emotional and physical cruelty. "Come down off your pedestal or I’ll have you shot," rages Stalin. The musicians must fight for what they believe in, the freedom to express themselves, and very possibly fight for their lives with their deranged leader.

Peter Hambleton is cast against type as Zhdanov and spits out his hatred for the musicians and all they stand for, while caring for the aging and clearly deranged Stalin with the fury of a mother cat protecting her litter. It is a pleasure to see Danny Mulheron back on stage and his Shostakovich is charmingly awkward, brave and tormented. David McKenzie gives the dignified old Prokofiev some real fire in his belly. We wince with him when he’s forced to the ground. Ray Henwood’s Stalin is a sadly comic character, but the flashes of cruelty could be even more searing.

The spacious and gracious set is a jaw dropper, exquisitely painted by Eileen McCann and lit by Phil Blackburn.

This production is not as electrifying as it could and should be, possibly because of opening night nerves slowing down the pace, especially in the long second half which drags badly in places. It’s a densely worded piece that will interest, in particular, music lovers and historians.


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Tired old bear’s growl just as menacing as ever

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Oct 2006

It is twenty years since Master Class was a huge hit for Circa at its tiny Harris Street theatre and twenty three years since it was first performed in England. With recent events in Turkey, Europe and the Middle East it has lost none of its relevance whatsoever.

The current, handsomely mounted revival, which opened on Saturday, is still under the expert baton of Ross Jolly who has won new but no less effective performances from his original Stalin (Ray Henwood) and Prokofiev (David McKenzie).

It says a great deal for the production and the newcomers to the cast – Peter Hambleton as Zhdanov and Danny Mulheron as Shostakovich – that the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Harris Street production has not been dissipated on John Hodgkins’ spacious, richly decorated, marble pillared reception room in the old Kremlin, except for possibly in the final scene when the playwright seems unsure how to bring his play to a conclusion.

Prokofiev and  Shostakovich  have been forced to attend a late night, vodka fuelled meeting with Stalin and his henchman Zhdanov in order to be taught the same lesson that the Russian musician in Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is forced to learn: ‘I am a member of an orchestra and we must play together.’

Stalin notoriously played cat-and-mouse games with artists, exterminating some and humiliating others. "I am the past; I make the present; I will supervise the future," he says with god-like force.

He crunches under foot the past in the memorable and chilling climax to the first act, and his attempt at supervising the future becomes a comic interlude (sketch?) in which two philistines attempt to create with two sophisticated musicians a Georgian folk cantata with words supplied by Stalin himself. 

The composers have to learn that the people need cheering up and that their formalist and anti-Soviet practices in their music which is marked by perversion, atonalism, dissonance, and undemocratic tendencies simply will not do. In short, they must write tunes people can whistle.

The play explores the role of the artist in society, the role of politics in art, elitism v democracy, the individual v the state. Though Stalin holds all the power and we know both composers did in the end survive his brutal regime Pownall’s play is still a lively and stimulating forum for the numerous debates it contains.

It should come as no surprise that the most effective parts of Ross Jolly’s production have a Pinteresque feel to them as Stalin and Zhdanov bully, humiliate and terrify the nervous, schoolboy-in-specs, almost-prepared-to-co-operate Shostakovich of Danny Mulheron and the urbane, quietly ironical, but no less terrified Prokofiev of David McKenzie.

Peter Hambleton submerges his usual affability on stage to convey the crude, highly volatile, dangerous brute Zhdanov, while Ray Henwood’s Stalin, as I wrote twenty years ago, is an old, tired, dangerous bear toying with his victims who never know whether they are going to be hit hard or gently cuffed. It is an unsettling and very fine performance.


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The Arts in a State of de-composition

Review by John Smythe 16th Oct 2006

Master Class is an acerbically comic cautionary tale about State control of artistic talents for propaganda purposes. Set in Stalin’s USSR circa 1948, it dramatises and explores its theme by summoning composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich to an ante-room in the old Kremlin to answer for their cultural crimes.

Interestingly it’s not the ageing Joseph Stalin himself who plays the heavy in David Pownall’s play but his cultural commissar, Andrei Zhdanov. As the enforcer, he overtly intimidates the composers while attempting to second-guess the wishes of his master, in whose name he pushes his own savagely pro-proletarian agenda. Having cleansed all other Soviet art forms of "elitist" artists with a brutal onslaught of denouncements, censorship and terror, he is using a conference of musicians to clean up the music sector.

Prokofiev is charged with being out of touch with the ordinary Russian; Shostakovich’s "crime" is that he is a "misery guts" writer of maudlin music. Zhdanov insists it is the composers’ patriotic duty to help the country move on from the tragic horror of the revolution (20 million dead) with inspirational music-for-the-people, firmly rooted in peasant soil. What’s more, he has already written a resolution for the conference to pass …

I am reminded of two events in recent NZ history:

·       In 1986 (the same year Circa first staged this play), the Labour government commissioned an ‘Arts 2000’ symposium, held in Wellington. Arts practitioners, administrators and bureaucrats from all over the country toiled for a week or so to develop an arts vision for the new millennium. Then the minister for arts at the time (Peter Tapsell) opened the plenary session – at which all the ardently developed remits were to be formally proposed and voted on – with the announcement that his party’s arts policy had just been finalised and would be published in two day’s time!

·       The following decade the NZ Film Commission, smarting from Sam Neill’s characterisation of our film output as "Cinema of Unease", decreed that film-makers were now to develop "feel-good" movies.  

But of course in democracies like New Zealand funding bodies operate at arms length from the governments that finance them, and it is a mysterious blend of funding body policies, assessment methods, investor and sponsor predilections, and market forces that conspire to influence what gets made at professional levels.

What Master Class critiques is direct government intervention regarding the actual nature and content of artistic works. And what it comes down to, in a tension-filled cat-and-mouse game of raw survival tactics, is the cathartic efficacy of emotional truth, albeit laced with lashings of vodka. (I know that’s oblique but to explain it more clearly would give too much of the show away.)

Extreme jeopardy is always a strong driver of comedy and in this case it reaches an absurdist, yet still frighteningly credible, extreme when the quartet attempt to group-devise a cantata. The ideals of egalitarian collectivism are, of course, totally subverted because Stalin’s every word – as librettist – is treated as incontrovertible gospel (if that’s the right word to use for a regime that literally spits on the image of Christ).

By bringing his gentle Welsh persona (they were boot-making, coal-mining peasants too) to Stalin, Ray Henwood (who also played him in 1986) embodies the dictator’s absolute power at an almost subliminal level, eschewing overt manifestations for a more Pinteresque menace. Stalin’s complex psycho-emotional state is intriguingly explored via a religious icon, received as a gift, that stimulates recollections of his choirboy childhood at the hands of brutal Russian Orthodox priests.

Peter Hambleton’s more immediately frightening Zhdanov personifies the truism that despots can only wield widespread power when thick-headed sycophants and delusional sociopaths sign on to implement the front-line abuse. By nailing his moments of vulnerability Hambleton shows clearly how easily fear of ridicule can turn the tormented into a tormenter. His genuine shock and grief at the sudden news that 420 miners have perished is an important humanising factor that likewise stops Zhdanov become a cipher.

Conversely, Stalin’s indifference proves how utterly removed he has become from the folk he claims to embody: "I am more folk than all of you!" he has insisted. The news of the mining disaster also allows Pownall to turn the argument inside out, showing how going to the other extreme – of valuing art (in this case orchestral music) above the lives of ordinary people – can be just as fascist as demanding all art be populist.

Also reprising his 1986 performance as Prokofiev (and, like Henwood, he is now the right age for the role), David McKenzie masters a dangerous game of satirical pseudo sycophancy, subtly sharing his strategy with the audience while keeping it from his potential assassins. And his superior skill as a pianist is a big plus for the production, for which he is credited as the musical director.

In a welcome return to acting (after years diverted by directing for stage and screen), Danny Mulheron – also skilled at the keyboard – brings depth and insight to the plight of Shostakovich, personifying the struggle all artists have between their personal integrity and expediency. It is the true music of Shostakovich that saves their lives, although – such is the unpredictability of the totalitarian despot – there is little doubt that it might just as easily have seen them sent to Siberia.

With Ross Jolly directing once more, the cast works extremely well as an ensemble, orchestrating with alacrity the mood-swings between drama and comedy in their variegated shades.

John Hodgkins turns in another fine set design, with marbled pillars and floor tiles combining with red plush drapes and large wooden door to evoke the old Kremlin ante-room. Phil Blackburn’s lighting and Gillie Coxill’s costumes also serve the show well.

When Circa did Master Class in 1986 – after many years of National government indifference to the arts, and as the mantras of Rogernomics started to pervade all Labour government policies – it hit a resonant chord. The role of the arts in society, and of government in funding but not controlling the arts, in the wider quest for economic and social health and well being, was extremely topical. With that fight for recognition and understanding largely won now, it will be interesting to see what particular appeal this excellent production of a well-matured play has for today’s theatre-goers.


Michael Wray October 23rd, 2006

Wow - who knew that Danny Mulheron and Peter Hambleton could play the piano so well?! As a point of trivia, I notice that Peter has grown a moustache for this role. Given that he had to remove his (fake) 'tache in Dr Buller's Birds due to it losing adhesion mid-play (admirably maintaining composure in the process), I did wonder whether he'd grown a real one to avoid the risk of a repeat disrobing!

John Smythe October 16th, 2006

Bill Sheat has opened a Forum topic called Masterclass - so I suggest all further comments be placed there. And be brave people - we owe it to each other and the future!

Michael Smythe October 16th, 2006

As the season approaches the Santayana clause ["Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it"] seems relevant. New Zealand arts history that we can learn from includes: The demise of our Crafts Council in 1992 lead to a process of 'consultation' that resulted in the creation of the late and not at all lamented Arts Marketing Board (AMBA). It was only after we had read 'The Stafford Report' that we realised how tha strategy sessions had been manipulated to deliver a pre-determined outcome. For an example that may or may not have a Soviet connection we can go back to the 1963 Export Development Conference. The newly organised design profession leapt at the chance to participate. The NZ Society of Industrial Designers envisaged an industry driven Design Council with government funding similar to the one recently established in Australia. Delegate names were enthusiastically submitted. The reply from F.N.G. McLean, Secretary of the Working Party on Quality and Design in Exports, to Professor Paul Beadle, President of NZSID stated: "... as the available accommodation for the Conference members is being taxed to its limits to make provision for the many people who have a direct interest in exporting New Zealand products, it has regretfully been decided that it is not possible to extend invitations to persons or organisations whose interests are more particularly concerned with design in general, rather than with exporting." Professor Beadle wrote to J. R. Marshall, Minister of Overseas Trade: "It appears to me that those responsible for inviting delegates are either totally ignorant of industrial design in New Zealand or guilty of deliberately excluding a body of professional advice and opinion which may have provided a challenge to the somewhat pontifical and dictatorial arrangements now being made by the officers of your department." Strangely this letter did not change the minds of the conference organisers. It has been suggested that, as the Secretary of Industries and Commerce, Dr W B Sutch (an early champion of New Zealand design) preferred the British Design Council model which would allow stronger control by his department, he did not want the profession’s preference for the Australian model to be presented.

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