27 May 2013

My ‘Midnight In Moscow’

Midnight in Moscow cast member Jon Pheloung tells drama on the waterfront about his experiences with Dean Parker's play, from directing a script workshop to the interrupted premiere in Christchurch - the "shortest main stage run in the history of New Zealand professional theatre" - to the current run in Circa One.

Miranda Manasiadis and Jon Pheloung in Midnight in Moscow. Photo by Stephen A'Court.                                                          
My ‘Midnight In Moscow’ 
By Jon Pheloung

I’ve appeared in two productions of Dean Parker’s ‘Midnight In Moscow.’ The first lasted just two nights of a projected one-month run. That is the shortest main stage run in the history of New Zealand professional theatre. Quite a milestone.

It was the play’s debut. I had directed a workshop of the script a few months earlier at which a small group of Christchurch-based actors staged some sequences for Dean (he’s a ‘no formalities’ person). He watched and listened politely, responded to questions and suggestions with grace, and fled the building as if released from Guantanamo Bay. Writers work long hours alone and actors are extremely free with their energies and enthusiasm.  

When we received the performance draft, ‘Moscow’ positively shone with possibility. Dean had polished the history- and politics-rich conversations until every sentence had the rigour and wit of his very best work. That’s an almost unequalled standard in New Zealand playwriting. If you’ve seen ‘Baghdad, Baby!’ or ‘The Perfumed Garden’ you’ll know what I mean.

We were handed a 1940s world (so far away now, and then, too, if you were a domestic Kiwi) of diplomacy and intrigue, song and dance, cocktails at noon, foreign delicacies (and delicacy), famous novelists and infamous leaders, and love in as many forms as could fit: married love, unrequited love, furtive, idealistic, mundane, strategic, doomed love, brotherly love, and, finally, several shades of the love we all know and grapple with – the love for one’s country of birth. On top of a mountain of laughs and mysteries and banter and passions, the play plants a flag. On that flag is the question: “How do you love your country?”

That question has several possible iterations: “How DO you love your country?”; “How do YOU love your country?”; HOW do you love your country?” Those different questions (achieved, incidentally, by the acting trick of varying emphasis in a line to uncover possibilities) haunt the audience and performers both whenever ‘Moscow’ is performed. Kiwis find it easy to say we love New Zealand, but Dean’s play asks “Which bit?” Myself, I love as much of it as I can. Trying to see the good in this gorgeous land, through the disputes, crimes, double-speak, and gossip that constitute our daily bread from the press. (I had mistyped ‘dread’ there. Perhaps I should have left it in.) One of the places I try hardest to always see the good in is my hometown, Christchurch. It’s far from flawless, but it’s full of talented and smart people, all of whom have their sleeves rolled up (some literally), rebuilding the city’s lost development and culture.

Stephen Papps and Jon Pheloung in Midnight in Moscow. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
And that brings us back to ‘Midnight In Moscow’ and the record we hold. Two nights into the debut season (directed by Ross Gumbley, and with Stephen Papps as Boris Pasternak, the role he is again playing here at Circa) the calamitous February quake closed the theatre indefinitely. So much was destroyed that day, our playacting the merest loss. But for those of us in that production, a special chamber of the heart opened up and our ‘Moscow’ was put inside. We are now scattered around the world. But our clothes, our martini glasses, our fake blood, our scripts… they are still inside the Arts Centre on Worcester Boulevard.
Now we have ‘Midnight In Moscow’ alive and humming (like Arapuni’s pylons) at Circa. I know Stephen and I are glad and grateful to revisit the script we worked and rehearsed, the production we debuted, the New Zealand Legation snatched away, now returned. Tones of regret and memory and loss chime throughout the play; they might sound a bit louder to us than others, but that’s not a burden. It’s some comfort to be reminded that when buildings crumble and people flee and costumes and props and sets are left to sit and rot, it is art, its vision, its ideas, its hope, that lives on.

Midnight in Moscow runs in Circa One until 8 June - to purchase tickets, visit www.circa.co.nz or call 801-7992.

20 May 2013

Why you need to see After Juliet ...

This week, cast members Iris Henderson and Maxwell Aspe tell drama on the waterfront why we should see their new play with 1st Gear Productions, After Juliet.

All rightey all you blogomites, my job is to convince you to come see the play After Juliet while also maintaining a charming demeanor. Can I?
First off, it’s a sequel to the classic tale of star-crossed lovers we all know so well. Come on, aren’t you a little curious about what the heck happened next? Was everything hunky-dory? Maybe not! Come see to find out.
Second of all, it’s a 1st Gear Production. These guys know what they’re doing. And when I say these guys, I really mean one guy. And when I say one guy, I mean the fantabulous Sarah Delahunty. I have worked with this magnificent woman for five years now, and in that time I have seen her create magic by combining Dr. Seuss and Shakespeare, make hippies relevant to the present day, and of course have an eighteen year old boy play a fifty year old, very feminine, ex-pole dancer convincingly. So, you know you’ve got some quality stuff when you’re getting it from her.
Third, and most important, we’re working real hard over here! C’mon! There’s fighting, and ice blocks, and scary dream sequences! What more could you want from a play?

So when you’re deciding what to do from the 25th of May to the 8th of June, remember, there’s a kick-ass play down at Circa you’re bound to love. So get down there and see it!

I am ridiculously lucky to be a part of After Juliet. I am lucky to be able to act alongside so many awesomely talented people, and I am lucky for the opportunity to perform in Circa Theatre: one of New Zealand’s leading theatres. As I am new to working with Sarah Delahunty and 1st Gear Productions, performing in The Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre (Flash 2012) as well as Summer Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra 2013) put me in a position where being a part of After Juliet was a possibility for me – which is awesome.

Working on After Juliet has truly been such an experience. The cast are all incredibly fun, talented, and crazy in that way that all actors seem to be. Despite all of us having dedicated up to ten hours a week for rehearsal over the last three months, we’re not sick of each other yet – so that’s an accomplishment! In my opinion there’s nothing in the world quite like being a part of a production, and it’s definitely something I hope to continue with my whole life.

Young and Hungry was an amazing way of starting out, meeting people, and becoming involved in Wellington’s theatre scene, without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. Haven’t heard of it? It’s a festival of three productions run back-to-back at BATS theatre for a two week season. I just couldn’t get enough of it in 2012 (*cough* - look out for me and Catriona in this year’s Dragonlore - *cough*).

Rehearsing in Circa Two this week will be super exciting and I can’t wait for opening night!

After Juliet opens in Circa Two on 25 May and runs until 8 June. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

13 May 2013

Our Next Million Bums ...

In November of last year, Circa Theatre launched our Millionth Bum Campaign, where we welcomed the Millionth Patron to our Waterfront theatre and introduced plans to upgrade the seats in Circa One and eventually the theatre itself. We have since received a good response to our call to support the funding of the new seating system. Donations have been received and we are happy to report that we have reached the first significant milestone of $50,000!

An example of one of the new seats is on display in the foyer - try it out next time you're in the building!

However, we still have a long way to go if we are to meet our deadline of installation in mid January 2014. If you can help, please do! Donations of any amount are gratefully accepted, but $1000 or more will get you a plaque on the back of one of the new seats - you will effectively 'own' a piece of Circa!

An example of the new seats is in the foyer and we urge you to try it and give us some feedback on its comfort, ease of use and design. What you will not see, of course, is the added aisle width and step configuration that will make the theatre so much more user friendly.

To donate, fill out one of the forms in the foyer or call the box office on 801-7992.

Thank you for your support!

06 May 2013


The following article by playwright Dean Parker appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 31 March (http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/8478959/The-Kiwi-and-the-Kremlin).

In 1949 the First Secretary at the New Zealand Legation in Moscow, Paddy Costello, was visiting the Russian poet (and subsequent author of Doctor Zhivago) Boris Pasternak when Pasternak was called away to the phone.

According to James McNeish’s enthralling 2007 biography of Costello, The Sixth Man, Costello related how his stunned host “returned after some minutes white-faced, in a state of shock, saying, ‘That was Stalin. He says he is writing a poem. He wanted my advice.’”

Paddy Costello sounds a corker bloke. Born 1912, raised in a grocery in Ponsonby not far from where I live, then on to Auckland Grammar and Auckland Uni, brilliant linguist and classicist (described by the Auckland University Department of Classics and Ancient History as “probably the most brilliant linguist ever in the department”), scholarship to Cambridge 1932, joined Communist Party 1935, met and within three weeks married fellow comrade Bella Lerner, Long Range Desert Group during the war, right-hand man to General Freyberg, renowned for pitch-perfect ballads sung at booze-ups, career diplomat until 1954, then let go after suspicion of being a Soviet agent. Died 1964 (heart attack). A quick and sensational life.

What stands out, of course, is suspicion of being a Soviet agent.

In 1954 two atom bomb spies working for the Russians arrived in Paris from the United States and were issued with New Zealand passports under the false names Peter and Helen Kroger. This enabled them to enter Britain and set up shop until arrested in 1961.

When The Mitrokhin Archive—a cache of documents smuggled out of Russia by a senior officer of the Soviet Foreign Intelligence service—was published in 1999, it revealed that a list of the Paris KGB’s “particularly valuable agents” in 1953 included an agent at the New Zealand consulate code-named “LONG”. This was 6ft 2in Paddy Costello whom, the Archive claimed, issued the Krogers with their Kiwi passports.

McLeish’s biography coolly and forensically demolishes the claim that Costello issued the Krogers’ passports. The passport applications were taken by another member of the consulate, Doug Zohrab, and signed off by the Charge d’Affaires, Jean McKenzie.

Of course proving that Paddy Costello had no hand in the issuing of the Krogers’ passports is one thing, proving that he wasn’t a Soviet agent code-named LONG entirely another. The term “agent” presumably covered a multitude of dealings. Costello had an Irish background, learnt Irish, would have seen the union jack as a butcher’s apron and the Empire a racket where Britain waived the rules, would have had no compunction in passing on to anyone anything and everything he was privy to about London’s continued meddling in, say, the Middle East pre-Suez. I would have done the same.
But look, honestly, he loved his family, admired and was loyal (in his own way) to his wife, didn’t exploit or oppress anyone, liked a drop and sang at parties. He was “unforgettably good company” according to his mate and fellow son of Irish immigrants, the wonderful Southland novelist and short story writer Dan Davin, “an unscrupulous arguer, the subject of countless stories, a man who could make any occasion come alive.” Who cares if he was a Russian spy? I’ve noticed women don’t. Women have a much more honest and personal view of what constitutes treachery. It’s only blokes who carry on about whether or not he was a spy.

When I wrote Midnight In Moscow (opening at the Maidment Theatre in Auckland in April, then in a second production at Circa in Wellington in May), I had Paddy Costello in mind as I fashioned one of the characters, Hugh Toomey.

The play takes place in the Russian capital in 1947, right at the onset of the cold war.

It’s a play of four acts, standard Chekhov.

Three of the acts are set inside the New Zealand Legation where there’s a line-up of entertaining and hard-drinking figures from the foreign service.

The remaining act, occurring in the first half, is set among the pine trees and cucumber patch of Boris Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino, a leafy riverside retreat outside Moscow.

There Hugh Toomey, Second Secretary at the Legation, makes regular visits to argue politics and literature with Pasternak… just like Paddy Costello.

When he was stationed in Moscow, Costello edited a volume of 20th century Russian poetry published by the Oxford University Press. He regularly met up with Boris Pasternak.

Like Costello, Hugh has been asked by Pasternak to do the English translation of the novel he is working on, Doctor Zhivago, a novel which portrayed the devastation wrought on Russia following the 1917 revolution and which will eventually win Pasternak the Nobel prize for literature and prove a major humiliation for the Soviets in the cold war.

But Hugh dislikes what he has seen of Zhivago. 

So did Costello.

Costello felt the book was a failure as a novel. “The characters exist simply to talk and listen to Doctor Zhivago,” he wrote later. “The narrative is as feeble as the character-drawing.”

But what irked Costello more was Pasternak’s (and his alter ego Zhivago’s) lack of enthusiasm for Russian Communism. Responding to Zhivago’s famous denunciation of building the Soviet state, that “man is born to live, not to prepare for life,” Costello tartly retorts, “To ‘live’ in the Zhivago sense one must be fortunate enough to possess a decent unearned income,” and, “Zhivago’s conduct is in keeping with his philosophy of life, which includes an unconditional denial of all obligations to society…”
Costello saw the Soviet Union as the forward base of the march of history and the Communist Party as its line of supply. According to one report, Pasternak complained of Costello “insisting on every possible and impossible occasion that he should get closer to the Party.”    

And in the play these are the arguments we hear from Hugh.

And again in the play the phone rings and it’s Stalin calling for Pasternak.

But this time it’s not the call that Pasternak recounted to Costello, the call about poetic advice; “Stalin needs an envoi for his latest sonnet,” might have got an easy laugh but I could see no real pay-off in terms of where the play was taking me. So I changed it. I changed it to an earlier call that Stalin made Pasternak. A more lethal call.

In 1934 Lenin had been dead for 10 years and the Soviet Union was in the glacial grip of Stalin. The Party had replaced the people, and the General Secretary the Party.  Moscow had become a place of the chill midnight tap on the door.

On an evening in June that year Stalin rang Pasternak and asked if he thought the poet Osip Mandelstam was a genius as Mandelstam had just been arrested and “the Soviet Union does not arrest geniuses.” We know from various reported accounts that Pasternak rambled on about how Mandelstam was from a different school of writing to himself but then straightened up and said he needed to talk to Stalin “about love, about life, about death”. Stalin went silent, then said something along the lines of, “If it was me getting arrested, I’d hope my friends would stick up for me better.” And hung up. And fair enough.

This was the phone call I used in the play, because I thought it gives a better insight into Pasternak, his little vanities and delusions. Gives an insight into pretty much all writers, really.

Costello’s life was compromised by Stalinism. He failed to see Russia’s revolution had changed in its class base and character, and carried on as a Stalinist cheer-leader.

But Pasternak was compromised as well. He had supported the revolution in 1917, lost his faith to a considerable degree in the ’20s but seemed to believe that all that was needed in the post-revolutionary ’30s was some sort of guidance in spiritual values from the top. When that proved impossible, or mistaken, he retreated into art and mystical pronouncements on life and love.

What was needed was a different debate about how we are to live. Hence the play.


Midnight In Moscow, Maidment Theatre 11 Apr – 4 May, directed by Colin McColl; Circa Theatre 11 May – 8 June, directed by Susan Wilson. To book for the Circa season, visit www.circa.co.nz or vall 801-7992.