Spies like us

By Dionne Christian

Dean Parker's play Midnight in Moscow is based on actual events in the New Zealand legation in Russia in 1947. Dionne Christian reports

Elena Stejko stars as a Russian ingénue.
Elena Stejko stars as a Russian ingénue.

Given the propensity New Zealanders have for spreading our wings and journeying to all corners of the globe, you would think some of our foreign follies would provide local playwrights with rich pickings. Yet home-grown theatre that deals with the experiences of Kiwis abroad is rare.

But there are exceptions and screenwriter, playwright, journalist and political commentator Dean Parker is the most notable. Politically active since his teens, Parker mixes his art with politics and history and often transports New Zealanders - innocents abroad, perhaps - to the world's hot spots.

Baghdad Baby, for example, takes a Kiwi backpacker to the Iraqi capital where he finds himself in a cafe with two Americans and two Iraqis. The Perfumed Garden involves a contingent of New Zealand peacekeepers in Afghanistan. Tonite Let's Make Love in London focuses on a young New Zealand woman caught in the midst of "flower power" and the onset of civil war in Northern Ireland.

Parker's playwriting credits read like an itinerary for a journey to some of the most troubled locations or contested conflicts.

But he has had lighter moments along the way: his screen-writing credits include the movie Came a Hot Friday and television shows Old Scores, Roche, Gold, Mortimer's Patch and Betty's Bunch.

Next month, Aucklanders will get the opportunity to see his 2011 play Midnight in Moscow at the Maidment Theatre. Like much of Parker's work, it crosses geographical as well as chronological boundaries to tell an absorbing story which, on the surface, is more personal than political.

Set in Moscow in 1947, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was an ally and the Cold War was yet to blow a chill wind around the world, the recently established New Zealand legation (a diplomatic representative office lower than a full-scale embassy) becomes embroiled in intrigue when rumours circulate of a spy in its midst. Loyalties are questioned, alliances and allegiances tested.

Midnight in Moscow's debut at Christchurch's Court Theatre was cut short by the February 22, 2011, earthquake but Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl says he believed it deserved another run because of its "supremely confident writing" and captivating subject matter. He describes Midnight in Moscow as part-spy thriller, part-comedy of manners and part-political debate; Parker himself likens it to a "formal debate in dinner jackets and proper attire".

"The characters are well-behaved and stick to their side of the stage," he says. "What I'd hope the audience do is have a good night out.

"I was once at a weekend conference on left-wing politics. I was having a drink on the Saturday evening and a young woman came up selling tickets to the play that night. The bloke besides me asked, 'What's the play?' The ticket-hawker said, Socialism or Barbarism. The bloke beside me immediately replied, 'Two tickets to Barbarism, please'."

The play is based on real-life events. Shortly after World War II, New Zealand opted to establish its first foreign legation in Moscow. Jean McKenzie, the country's diplomatic representative in Paris and a woman with a reputation as a superb party organiser and hostess, was chosen to head it, becoming our first female ambassador. Paddy Costello, a university professor, was chosen to join the legation as a diplomat but his friendship with Russian poet Boris Pasternak led to allegations of spying.

June Temm, played by Robyn Malcolm, is based on Jean McKenzie; Kit Lovell-Smith, played by Carl Bland, is based on New Zealand diplomat Paddy Costello, and Phil Grieve portrays Pasternak. Remaining characters include June's niece Sophie Toomey (played by Sophie Hambleton), Hugh Toomey (Adam Gardiner), legation staffer Madeleine Corless (Hera Dunleavy), and Russian ingenue Olga Ivinskaya (Elena Stejko).

Parker says the inclusion of three pivotal female characters was a nod to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters. He says he finds women more interesting than men as characters, a realisation he reached while drinking in a bar with some female friends.

"I ended up with a group of women, parliamentary reporters, all talking about the latest episodes of Coronation Street - and I mean talking really seriously and drawing conclusions about life, and, at the same time, talking gleefully because the moment you start talking about Coronation Street you can't help it.

"Anyway, here we were, in the debating chamber of the nation, the future of the country before us - or behind us or whatever - and these gals were arguing about Tyrone and Maria and I looked over into a far corner of the bar and there were these blokes sitting silently at a table, all of them looking bitter and twisted and middle-aged failures. I realised I should spend more of my writing time in the company of women characters. I'd probably been thinking along those lines before this but I do remember that occasion reinforcing it all."

But Parker is clear in the preface to his play that it is totally made up; the real-life events and people simply inspired his own story. Even so, Malcolm and Bland agree that its factual basis and setting make for a script the likes of which they hadn't seen before.

"No one is quite who they seem to be," says Malcolm. "It's about betrayal on all sorts of levels, including the ways in which we can deceive ourselves. June is extremely good at her job, but she has some massive personal conflicts going on, fatal flaws in her character. She's an alcoholic, she's trying to keep her work and her personal life separate and then she's told there's possibly a spy in the midst.

"In many respects, these characters are 'babes in the woods'. They're from New Zealand where I think we have a certain innocence and naivety.

"We haven't been raised in a country where there has been century after century of war and conflict in our backyard."


What: Midnight in Moscow
Where and when: Maidment Theatre, April 11 - May 4

- NZ Herald

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