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

11/05/2013 - 08/06/2013

Production Details

A provocative, funny and intriguing new play by renowned NZ playwright, Dean Parker, Midnight in Moscow mixes fact and fiction, art, politics and history, as it tells the absorbing story of a group of Kiwis a world away from home. 

Intrigue swirls around the NZ Embassy in Moscow in 1947, and the staff must question their loyalty to themselves, their friends, and their country, when suspicions arise that someone is leaking classified information. Woven with threads of real events and characters, and with an inspired portrait of Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, Midnight in Moscow is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining exploration of betrayal. 

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”  – E. M. Forster 

Midnight in Moscow is an imaginary entertainment, a dramatic fiction, but the odd real-life event was taken advantage of,” says playwright Dean Parker. “The character of June Temm owes a huge debt to the clearly wonderful Jean McKenzie, the first woman to head an overseas New Zealand diplomatic post, hailed by all as ‘a warm and generous host’. Then there is the figure of Paddy Costello, a former NZ diplomat of some notoriety, whose name seems to appear annually with claims he was some sort of Kiwi Kim Philby. And I had read that Pasternak had sought Costello as an English translator of Doctor Zhivago. 

“But Midnight in Moscow remains a totally made-up play. The real-life events and people gave me a story, and the story gave me  the chance to reflect upon something I’d noticed about people’s reactions to Paddy Costello: it was only the blokes who carried on about whether or not he was a spy – women had a much more honest and personal view of what constituted treachery.” 

Circa is delighted to be bringing this fascinating and highly acclaimed play to Wellington audiences. Midnight in Moscow premiered at the Court Theatre in Christchurch – in the shortest main-venue run of any play in New Zealand. On the second night the curtain came down, followed next afternoon by the ceiling as the earthquake of 22 February hit the city. And in Auckland the Auckland Theatre Company production was delayed by a fire at the Maidment Theatre. Circa is hoping for a less eventful season! 

“Sophisticated, entertaining and intelligent … with scintillating wit, charming musical items … and wonderful moments of humour” – NZ Herald 

Lots of laughs throughout, a dash of singing … lively … entertaining and thought-provoking”  – Theatreview (Auckland) 

“Espionage furnishes fun ingredients for drama … It gives cause to ponder, as well as smile. Bravo!” — Theatreview (ChCh) 

 “A rich and satisfying work confirming Parker’s place in the ranks of NZ’s most sophisticated playwrights” — David O’Donnell, Australian Drama Studies 

Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
11th MAY – 8th JUNE 2013
$25 SPECIALS  – Friday 10th May – 8pm;  Sunday 12th May – 4pm;
AFTER SHOW FORUM – Tuesday 14th May
Performance times:
Tuesday & Wednesday – 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 8pm
Sunday – 4pm 
Ticket Prices:
Adults – $46; Concessions – $38; Friends of Circa – $33
Under 25s – $25; Groups 6+ – $39
BOOKINGS:  Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington 
Phone 801 7992  www.circa.co.nz

A witty and perceptive conflation of fact and fiction

Review by John Smythe 13th May 2013

Once more – as with The Tigers of Wrath last year – Dean Parker has contained an epic sweep of socio-political history within an ingeniously crafted play that capitalises on the fact that the political is personal and the personal is political. 

What with the Court Theatre premiere being cut short by the February 2011 earthquake and the Auckland Theatre Company opening being delayed by a fire in the Maidment Theatre (as it relocated to the Aotea Centre’s NZI Room), this Circa Season, dynamically directed by Susan Wilson, has been highly anticipated with a tinge of trepidation. The result is an unalloyed triumph.

Set in 1947, mostly within the New Zealand Legation in the USSR’s capital city, Midnight in Moscow pinpoints the time when the defeat of Hitler and Fascism and the joys of post-war industrialisation came up against a slowly growing awareness that the ideals of Communism were being corrupted by Josef Stalin; that far from being opposites, Hitler and Stalin have an awful lot in common. (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, was not formed until 1949, to counter the Stalin-led spread of Communism in Europe.) 

It’s fair to say that Midnight in Moscow assumes its audience knows what will follow and will see this drama in that context; that the more we know about Stalinism, Boris Pasternak and pro-Soviet spies (Burgess, McLean and Philby), not to mention our own Paddy Costello, before we see the play (plus Colin Moyle, regarding other matters closer to home), the more we’ll tune into its subtext. On the other hand, we may leave it inspired to find out more – and in this age of internet-sourced information, there’s no excuse not to.

But is the history what this play is really about, or is Parker’s witty and perceptive conflation of fact and fiction the means by which we get to see how individuals create history, be they idealistic, fallible, unimpeachable or corrupt? The answer is yes to both: the particular is universal; the universal is particularised and personalised. Hence this play may well prove to be a classic.  

Post-war Russia is also a brilliant prism through which to pass the multi-facetted New Zealand character. A lot of the comedy – of which Anton Chekhov would be proud – comes from that.

Book-ending the play as its story-teller, 30-plus years after the events, is the urbane, personable (and fictional) diplomat Kit Lovell-Smith, who himself is multi-facetted. Despite his empathising with Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle-step father) and quoting E M Forster – “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” – Gavin Rutherford ensures we understand why he is so lovable to so many. A beautifully pitched performance. 

Queen-pin of the Legation is the dipsomaniacal yet politically extremely astute June Temm (inspired by the first woman to head an overseas New Zealand diplomatic post, Jean McKenzie, whose legendary generosity as a host of parties was gained in Paris). Carmel McGlone also takes us on a multi-level ride as she juggles June’s roles as boss-woman, aunt in loco parentis, friend, confidante and unrequited lover. The power of her warnings about bugs and her blurted denunciation of Communism are compellingly counterpointed by her uncertainties and vulnerabilities. There are times when we tune right into her constantly assessing and evaluating mind, perceiving her unspoken thoughts.  

June’s niece, Madeline Corless, is a brilliantly conceived character. Her passion is hydro electricity and dam-building, and she has a scholarship to study it at “the Institute” via the New Zealand Soviet Friendship Society. Her rhapsodic paean to Arapuni is but one of the many gloriously poetic passages in Parker’s text. Chelsea Bognuda delights in contrasting Madeline’s industrial obsession with her interest in fashion and falling in love … Delicious.  

There is a distinctly Chekhovian tone to the Legation’s archivist, Sophie Toomey, in her determination to see the best in everyone and everything (an echo of Irina from The Three Sisters, perhaps). As embodied by Jessica Robinson, her innocent idealism is a welcome contrast to the more cynical views of Kit and June, even though we have cause to bleed for her lack of awareness.

A seemingly bizarre and out-of-context rendition of ‘Three Little Maids From School’ from The Mikado, yet totally appropriate as NZ’s culturally bereft contribution to a function in honour of E M Forster – and splendidly rendered by McGlone, Robinson and Bognuda – turns out to be another dramaturgical coup from Parker, when we learn why they are banned at the last minute from doing it. This offers but one of many clues to the growing awareness of Stalin’s true nature (and puts paid to the odd assertion, in the NZ Herald’s review of the ATC production, that the play puts undue emphasis “on a rehash of the standard left-wing apologetics for Stalinist totalitarianism” (see the Comments thread this provoked).

Of course it is essential we understand why so many apparently intelligent and well-educated people (e.g. ‘The Cambridge Five’) became pro-Soviet spies and double-agents. This role falls to Hugh Toomey, played with compelling conviction by Jon Pheloung (who played Kit Lovell in the ill-fated Court Theatre premiere). Introduced in the play as the doting husband of Sophie, his true colours at personal, political and literary levels are exposed on his visits to Boris Pasternak’s dacha, by virtue of his being asked to translate the revered poet’s first and yet-to-be completed novel Doctor Zhivago into English.

Hugh Toomey’s denunciation of the novel as “a lie” makes it clear why it was suppressed in Soviet Russia (and first published in Italy in 1957 before achieving fame as a loosely-adapted film in 1965), as does his view of the Revolution as liberating Tsarist Russia from waste, slavery and greed. Pasternak’s rebuttal – “man was born to live, not prepare for the future!” and the artist’s only quest must be for the Truth – will resonate with many of any age.

Stephen Papps at last gets to play a full season of the role he originated in Christchurch, capturing beautifully the essence of the truth-seeking, ‘above party politics’ artist, who nevertheless waits for a call from Stalin to come and discuss the meaning of life and meanwhile takes great pride in growing cucumbers.  

More conscious of what is happening around them is his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, played with intense inner-feeling by Miranda Manasiadis. Her embodiment of ‘living in the sensuous moment’ while fearing the future offers a piquant distillation of the dichotomy of human life.

Lest my summaries suggest this play is turgidly dramatic, let me hasten to say it is anything but. Framed somewhat as a spy thriller – in that June is made aware early on that someone is leaking secret files to the Russians and so, despite feeling we know upfront, we keep an eye out for clues as to who else it might be – the tensions arising from that and the inter-personal dynamics generate comedy throughout.

The Chekhovian tones already mentioned are wilfully blended with the odd Wildean epigram and Noel Coward-esque eloquence, ingeniously interpolated musical items and a uniquely Kiwi perspective on world affairs to produce a richly textured two-and-a-half hours of riveting entertainment.

John Hodgkin’s stepped set with hanging flags and period furniture serves the action well, as does Marcus McShane’s lighting design – although the hazer-smoke kept leaking through the window and the visible scaffolding pipes beyond were something of a distraction on opening night.

Gillie Coxill’s costume designs are delightfully appropriate, supporting the story without intruding on it and giving a strong sense of the era.

Director Susan Wilson has made a complex task look effortless and our enjoyment is all the more assured for that. As a superbly crafted play and production, Midnight In Moscow is not to be missed.


John Smythe May 20th, 2013

I should add that in the past couple of days friends and colleagues in Auckland and Christchurch have told me, in relation to the 'Alex' comment, that in my review they fully recognise the play as the same brilliant script they saw produced by the ATC and Court Theatre respectively.

John Smythe May 18th, 2013

I would not and could not have written this review unless I perceived the play as described, so I stand by it absolutely.  What a shame you did not feel bold enough to post your comment under your real name.

Alex May 18th, 2013

This reviewer must have some filtering device fitted which translates the events before him onstage into a fantasy. What he describes here may be what the writer WISHED he had written, and the performances that might have been possible  in a strong production of this imagined, ideal script. However it all bears so little relation to what actually appeared on stage that we wondered briefly afterwards if we weren't losing our senses.

This play is drab and turgid and says absolutely nothing political of any importance or relevance whatsover; setting it in Moscow and dropping famous polticians' and writers' names does not amount to political content. All it boiled down to was a handful of aimless, inconclusive love affairs. The performances were tired and inconsistent, although with such a vague script, poor casting and direciton in the first place, I suppose they are not entirely to blame. 

I am angry that I was duped by this irresponsible review into parting with money we could ill afford. Since then I have met others who feel exactly the same, and am so emboldened to write this.  

John Smythe May 15th, 2013

A couple of people have taken my original mention of Colin Moyle - in the now modified para 4 - as suggesting he was a spy. He was not and that implication was not intended. Kit’s epilogue encapsulates an element of his own subsequent fate, long after the substantive action concludes, that clearly evokes ‘The Colin Moyle Affair’ – for those who know of it (easily Googled).

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A Kiwi play to really sink your teeth into

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 13th May 2013

Many contemporary New Zealand plays are Fast Food theatre: they’re over in about an hour, have small casts for small stages, and are based mostly around relationships. So it’s a pleasure to see for a change a play that offers us a substantial four course dinner.

In his preface to the published script of Midnight in Moscow Dean Parker writes that the subject matter of his play “needed a decent-sized stage. It was a straight piece of bourgeois theatre, written for an older audience: a formal debate in dinner jackets and proper attire, so to speak.” 

While the relationships between the characters are pivotal to the play’s themes, which include unrequited love and poetry, they are not the be-all and end-all of the play. They are intertwined with questions about loyalty to one’s friends and loyalty to socialism. The play also explores the lingering repercussions of socialism today. A leitmotif throughout the play is a line from Pasternak: “Life’s not a stroll across a field.” 

The formal debate in dinner jackets and proper attire takes place in the New Zealand Legation in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1947. The Legation is run by charismatic and hard-drinking June Temm (Carmel McGlone) who is informed by the Americans that there’s spy in her Kiwi team.

It’s not Parker’s intention to make his play a whodunit. If you know anything about the Cambridge spies or have read or seen Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, it is easy to pick out the spy.

In the second act the play moves to Boris Pasternak’s dacha where Hugh (Jon Pheloung), Kiwi diplomat and poetry lover, goes to interview the famous poet and to meet his mistress Olga (Miranda Manasiadis). It’s a strange sequence that demonstrates the status of literature in both countries and it also contains a scene in which Hugh teaches Pasternak (Stephen Papps) a nonsense Kiwi song that I think is meant to be humorous but could well be cut.

The Legation also houses the urbane Kit (Gavin Rutherford, giving an outstanding performance), June’s naive niece Madeleine (Chelsea Bognuda), who is studying engineering and falls for Kit, and Sophie, Hugh’s sentimental wife (Jessica Robinson).

It is an absorbing, if uneven, play (literate, amusing dialogue with strong curtain lines that Rattigan would have admired) and it has been given an impressive production by Susan Wilson and her team.


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