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