Theatre: Russian resolution

By Dionne Christian

(From left) Elizabeth Hawthorne, Elena Stejko and David Aston. Photo / Supplied
(From left) Elizabeth Hawthorne, Elena Stejko and David Aston. Photo / Supplied

An actor may play many roles during the course of his or her life, but some stick with them. David Aston has never forgotten a play from 2003 in which he portrayed a lovelorn Waikato farmer who strikes up a long-distance relationship with a Russian secretary and solo mother.

"Bob was his name and he was a good man, a genuine person with a lot of positive attributes, and an interesting character, partly because of the insights he provides into the psyche of the New Zealand male."

Aston says he always thought Where Are You My Only One? should be seen by a wider audience because it's a "beautiful piece" with appeal to anyone who likes comedy with heart. So he secured the rights and, nearly a decade after it was first performed in Auckland, is bringing it to the Basement Theatre with Cameron Rhodes as director and John Verryt as designer. Aston reprises the role of Bob while Elizabeth Hawthorne and Elena Stejko play a Russian mother and daughter facing upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"They represent different generations who have different views of what has happened to their home," says Hawthorne. "My character, Ludmila, is the mother who wants to stay in Russia because it's home, while Yulia, her daughter, is looking outwards for a new and better way of life for her and her son."

Aston's fond memories of Where Are You My Only One? were reawakened this year when he appeared in the Roger Hall comedy A Shortcut to Happiness about a Russian immigrant teaching folk dancing to a group representative of "middle New Zealand".

It helped that Rhodes was appearing alongside Aston in the comedy because he is the older brother of the playwright, Vanessa Rhodes, who penned Where Are You My Only One? for Silo Theatre's To Russia With Love season, nine years ago.

Back then, Vanessa Rhodes was moving from acting to playwriting and working towards an MA in scriptwriting from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. She wrote the play because she has always been intrigued by Russia, and the "mail order bride" phenomenon was also making headlines.

She was interested in the idea of two different worlds colliding and the ways in which both the men and women involved in the relationships dealt with the resulting culture clashes. She interviewed a number of people, not just brides, who had left Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union but also a few New Zealand men looking to strike up relationships.

Elena Stejko was one of the first interviewed and is delighted to be appearing in the play, considerably revised since its 2003 outing. It could have gone the way of so many New Zealand plays - performed for only one brief season then left to languish in a drawer. But when Vanessa Rhodes was resident at the Robert Lord Cottage in Dunedin, she developed it as a longer work. Circa Theatre presented it in 2008 as a rehearsed reading and the following year it debuted at Circa Two.

"It's about courage and bravery and putting yourself - and your heart - on the line which, I think, is why people like it," she says. "I'm thrilled it is going to be performed in Auckland and just as happy that my brother is directing it. I have huge respect for him as an actor and director."

And Cameron is clearly equally proud of his younger sister, saying they have always been close. Both were interested in speech and drama from an early age, appearing in productions with their local community theatre, Hutt Repertory.

"There was no sibling rivalry," he says, "probably because we were always going for different roles. We travelled round Europe together but this is the first time we have worked together. I'm sure we'll still be friends afterwards."

What: Where Are You My Only One?
Where and when: Basement Theatre, November 27-December 8

- NZ Herald

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