By Dean Parker; Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Aotea Centre, Auckland | April 15-May 4
“Think with the poor, eat with the rich.” The pithy line is thrown away in one of Midnight in Moscow’s faster paced scenes, but for me it’s a line that sums the play up perfectly. Parker’s script revolves around New Zealand’s Moscow Embassy in post-World War II Russia and the semi-fictional/semi-historical people who inhabit it, from functioning alcoholic and diplomat June Tumm (Robyn Malcolm), to the unabashedly immoral diplomat Kit (Carl Bland) and his fiancé Madeline (Sophie Hambleton). Hugh (Adam Gardiner), a diplomat, and his delightfully idealistic wife Sophie (Hera Dunleavy) are other New Zealanders at the Embassy, while a subplot centres on Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak (Phil Grieve) and his mistress Olga (Elena Stejko). Without giving away anything, the plot is kick started by a rumour that someone in their midst has leaked secrets to the Russians, but no one is sure who did it or why. It’s the set-up for a fairly engaging political drama.
Parker’s script discusses (at length) the morals and philosophies behind socialism—the political climate in Soviet Russia and Russian literature—but wraps it up in a package so neat and tidy that it’s unlikely to offend, or really provoke, anyone. Again, “Think with the poor, eat with the rich.”
The entire play has a comic tone, perhaps exaggerated by the direction, which seems to undercut what is at stake here for these people. It’s not to say that the comedy doesn’t work—the song and dance number that opens the second act is easily the highlight of the play—it’s more that the humour seems to exist just to make sure everything else goes down easier. For every political opinion that a character states, there’s at least three fish-out-of-water jokes surrounding it. A scene where June interrogates Sophie about her political beliefs and history becomes tonally jarring, where we seem to be expected to laugh at this woman and her beliefs rather than take her seriously at all, and it becomes even more difficult to swallow when we’re fed the same jokes over and over.
Too often, the script indulges itself in lengthy discussions about some really fascinating ideas and concepts. This is especially evident in a scene between Pasternak and Hugh, where we watch these two men sit at a table talking about the benefits of socialism and Stalinism, Russian literature and New Zealand, while the plot grinds to a halt and any drama lies dead on the floor. These diversions kill any momentum the play has and turn it into a pretty funny, somewhat engaging essay. There’s more than one of these scenes, and they end up being the play’s biggest detriment, no more than a scene towards the end of the play, which I won’t spoil. It’s a crucial shift in focus and style that relies on us caring about a character that hasn’t inspired an investment from the audience, and with a barrage of easy jokes, it trivialises the other characters and their plights. It’s a play-killing move, and it’s only due to the performances that the play isn’t sunk entirely by it.
The performances across the board in Midnight in Moscow are pretty entertaining. Unsurprisingly, Robyn Malcolm is the highlight. As an actress, she is radiant and eminently watchable. She draws the eye instantly and she throws off some of Parker’s best zingers without missing a beat. As June Tumm, Malcolm has to carry the emotional stakes of the play and make us care about them, which she does very well. Her voice and presence carry a gravitas that the play badly needs and even when it becomes comedic, she keeps it relatively grounded. The play is never more engaging than when she is onstage.
The other actresses are similarly excellent. Hera Dunleavy keeps the character of Sophie from becoming a joke with a steely innocence and some great comic timing, while Sophie Hambleton provides some of the biggest laughs of the play with her engineering student character. Elena Stejko is another highlight as Olga. There’s a moment where she simply walks onstage and then walks off, and she holds the stage so effortlessly, and gives the scene and the entire stage some weight, that it was the most memorable moment of the show. Even from halfway back in the NZI room, I could see the weight of her character’s marriage and her life on her face. Powerful stuff.
Gardiner and Grieve get to carry some of the heavier, heady scenes in the play and generally handle them well, especially Grieve, who wrangles an impressive Russian accent. Carl Bland as Kit is less successful; he manages the comedy well, but his flamboyant performance is at odds with the play to the point where it’s hard to believe the other characters like him, let alone feel any kind of emotional connection to him whatsoever.
The Lower NZI room at the Aotea Centre has been transformed by Auckland Theatre Company into a damn impressive theatre space. Midnight in Moscow utilises a revolving stage and some lavish curtains and windows, all of which transport us into the world of the play effortlessly. The lighting is appropriately expressive and often gorgeous, especially in the second act. Nic Smillie’s costume design is simply stunning, especially for the women; I absolutely covet a fur coat worn by Olga later on in the play, and they often catch the eye without being distracting.
For a third time, I bring up “Think with the poor, eat with the rich.” It keeps coming back to me. For all the play’s discussion of high-minded ideals, this is theatre that is easy to swallow. The jokes are not difficult, the plot is not difficult to follow, it’s pleasant to look at and the acting is engaging. This doesn’t make it a bad play, and I would say that the production saves a problematic script, but it does come across as insincere. I’d love to see it engage with the ideals it preaches through action rather than empty talk.
Midnight in Moscow is a handsome production, sometimes thought-provoking, and intermittently engaging, but at most it’s a well-acted diversion. There’s not a huge difference, quality or otherwise, between it and a teledrama, and if that’s your jam, then Midnight in Moscow, for better or worse, will be right up your alley.