Midnight in Moscow
01/09/2011 - 24/11/2011
Midnight in Moscow had the shortest main-venue run of any play in New Zealand. On its second night the curtain came down, followed next afternoon by theceiling. This was the play that had just opened at the Court Theatre in Christchurch when the great earthquake of February 22 hit, killing 185 people. Here is the full text, together with a major introduction by the author. The play is set in Moscow, 1947; the introduction is set in Moscow, too, in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and then at the demise of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Along the way the introduction takes in Burgess and Philby, Napier in the early 1960s, hippie London, New Zealand politics and theatre in the ’70s, Christchurch and Mervyn Thompson and finally the present — the return of the mob.
Dean Parker is a screenwriter, playwright, journalist and political commentator. Previous works include plays Baghdad, Baby, The Feds, and The Hollow Men (adapted from Nicky Hager’s book) and cowriting the screenplay of the film Came a Hot Friday from the novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
Refreshing drama of deceit and treachery about ‘The God that Failed’
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Nov 2011
Steele Roberts Publishers are to be congratulated for publishing Dean Parker’s play Midnight in Moscow and thereby rescuing it from becoming either a footnote to our theatrical history or a pub quiz teaser: Name the play that opened at the Court Theatre in Christchurch in February 2011 and closed after two performances when the earthquake struck the city.
The play deserves a much greater exposure than only two performances in just one city – but the state of New Zealand theatre being what it is at present, publication of the script may be as good as it gets for this unusual play.
Unusual? It’s a New Zealand play that is about spying in the New Zealand Legation in Moscow in 1947. It has the appearance of a well-made play by a right-wing playwright with some amusing Wildean chitchat (“If man were perfectly virtuous, he would not have friends”) and a number of terrific climactic curtain lines that Terence Rattigan would have admired, and it would therefore not have been out of place in the pre-Look-Back-in-Anger days of the West End, except for the central character’s final great speech and the last scene of all back in Wellington.
Aunt Edna would have coped with it quite happily though she might have had trouble with one of the characters who has a predilection for rough trade in “the public lav near the British Embassy.”
It is of course written by a well-known left-wing playwright who writes in his preface that he could have written it for the studio theatres that had housed many of his previous plays. But the subject matter of Midnight in Moscow “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.”
Prefaces are rare in New Zealand published plays but an illuminating, wide-ranging one of near Shavian length such as Dean Parker’s (he calls it an Introduction) is a notable and unusual event. He covers a lot of ground: a teenage visit to Downstage and seeing Pat Evison in Beckett’s Happy Days; the inspiration (and the sad death) of Mervyn Thompson; New Zealand politics and the Soviet Union; Philby, Burgess, MacLean and Costello; the excoriation of “the unbelievable rudeness of our theatres. They’re the most appalling rude, rude people…”; the sinister unseen presence of Stalin and the presence of a grumpy Boris Pasternak who is a character in Parker’s play; and the development of the writing of Midnight in Moscow. Parts of the preface have appeared in other publications but as a whole it is riveting reading, despite misnaming Alan Bennett’s superb spy play An Englishman Abroad.
The play is in 4 acts. That’s unheard of these days. It has a cast of 7 – large by today’s standards. Most scenes take place in a reception room in the Legation but Act Two takes place in the garden of Boris Pasternak’s dacha in a village for writers outside Moscow. It is, as Parker writes in his preface, “a totally made-up play. Who wants a recitation of facts? 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: that it was only 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.”
The interest of the play is not in discovering who is the spy passing on secrets to the Russians from the Legation; it lies in carefully judged personal/political/social/and nationalistic beliefs of the characters and their personal and romantic entanglements with each other and the petty deceits and major treacheries that ensue.
The fine central scene at the dacha – with Pasternak, Olga his mistress, Hugh a New Zealander and the unseen but only a phone call away presence of Stalin – in which the play’s themes and undercurrents are fully exposed, is full of amusing, serious, ironic dialogue and situations. At one point Hugh points out to Pasternak that he’s doing it all right under Stalin’s regime with a flat in Moscow and a dacha in the country, while back in New Zealand an author “would be roughing it in a fibrolite bach – if you were lucky!” Pasternak, unaware of what a bach is and the reference to Sargeson, replies that Russia has only two dangers: “Writing. And Conversation.”
The nicely ironic ending leaves one – as does Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad and his longer spy play about Anthony Blunt A Question of Attribution – with a certain sympathy for the spy and Parker’s spy could easily have said what Bennett’s Guy Burgess says about himself: “If I wore a mask it was to be exactly what I seemed.”
Slouching towards Bethlehem, Dean Parker’s most recently produced play, is a political comedy about Robert Muldoon that is a strong antidote to the carefully restricted social comedies by our leading playwrights that seem to have taken over our theatres in recent times, and Midnight in Moscow is a highly refreshing change too: a serious play that deals dramatically but never ponderously about the God that Failed, deceit and treachery and all set in the midst of the Cold War and the brutal world of Stalin’s Russia, with the constant reminder through the use of Pasternak’s reiterated understatement that ‘Life’s not a stroll across a field.’
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