John Stapleton | February 01, 2008
AUSTRALIAN plays are rarely performed in Europe. But this week a new Australian play, The Lovers The Outcasts, has been advertised throughout the Viennese underground, on billboards and on the sides of buses and trams.
Beneath a picture of a handsome young man stroking the belly of an equally handsome young woman is the declaration that the play, written by James Cumes, a former Australian ambassador to Austria, is about to have its world premiere.
The Lovers The Outcasts is a historical echo: the story of the Petrov affair that transfixed Australia in the 1950s and, in an era of anti-communist hysteria, contributed to making Liberal Party hero Robert Menzies the longest serving prime minister in Australian history.
The affair had all the elements to fascinate what was then an isolated culture: Soviet spies, a beautiful woman in the shape of Evdokia (Eva) Petrov, and scandalous accusations aimed at the highest reaches of the Australian government.
It also led to one of the most famous photographs of the Cold War era: the sight of Eva Petrov being manhandled on to a plane by Soviet agents aroused sympathy and outrage around the world.
The Lovers The Outcasts begins a three-day run tonight at the elegant Schlosstheater in Schonbrunn Palace, one of Vienna's prime tourist attractions, and the curious nature of the play has already attracted attention from Vienna's main media outlets.
Key to the interest has been the remarkable 85-year-old Cumes, who is still regarded with affection and referred to as Botschafter, or ambassador, wherever he goes.
Everything about Cumes is extraordinary. His conversation is dotted with tales spanning the decades from his years as a soldier in New Guinea during World War II to his many years as a diplomat with postings in West Africa, Paris, London, Geneva, Brussels and his beloved Vienna. Since retiring he has maintained homes in Vienna, Monaco, Canberra and Brisbane.
He is hoping The Lovers The Outcasts will soon be performed at Monaco's Princess Grace Theatre. He also hopes the play will be performed in Australia.
Cumes has long been obsessed, he says, by writing: he has written 15 books in all, including four novels and a blog he maintains on his website. His latest work, written while in his 80s, is an economic polemic called America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-destruction of a Superpower.
Five years ago Cumes sat down and recounted the Petrov affair, keen to get out a story that had been lurking in the back of his mind since the 1950s.
"Like so many others, I have always thought the Petrov affair was a great story that deserved more dramatic treatment than it has so far received," he says.
The bare facts of his project are interesting enough; that he managed to attract investment from the cultural establishment of Vienna for a story a half century old and from half a world away is even more remarkable.
The Lovers The Outcasts is being performed in English by the well-established Vienna Theatre Company and has attracted several prominent local actors.
Andrea Kunesch, who plays Eva Petrov, is well known to Austrian television audiences. Balazs Schallenberg, who plays Vladimir Petrov, has worked in films and TV, while Australian Brian Hatfield, who plays an ASIO career officer, has worked for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Vienna-born director Roman Kollmer has worked in radio, TV and movies.
Kollmer says that 54 years after the Petrov affair, "long after the Cold War ended, the play reminds us that - and this is most exciting for me - the Petrovs were human beings, individuals, and not merely puppets, created, used and maybe abused by politicians, media and press".
"Cumes shows us that there is more than black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, and if we look at today's politics in democratic - or should I say capitalistic? - countries worldwide, we see that we are still subjected, as the Romans were, to the unavoidable hunger for bread and the alluring seduction of circuses."
Cumes says the reason The Lovers The Outcasts is getting such sympathetic coverage in the Austrian media is because "Europeans think of Australia as a fabulous place to go to, to think about, to imagine. There's no doubt the friendliness and curiosity with which Australians are seen has helped with the play."
As first secretary in the Department of External Affairs in 1954, Cumes knew many of the people involved in the Petrov affair. As he cheerfully puts it, he worked "cheek by jowl with the 'nest of traitors' alleged at the time to infest the department". He knew personally some of those whose careers were "most unjustly" destroyed.
History has shown that many of the accusations made at the time about Soviet sympathisers infesting the Canberra bureaucracy proved to have no foundation.
"I knew no one with whom I was not then and would not now be proud to associate," Cumes says.
"The story arouses a variety of emotions, personal, political and even, of course, strategic in so far as it demonstrates the clash of Cold War ideologies in the second half of the 20th century. Eva became a darling of the media. She was described as beautiful, elegant and a leader of women's fashion."
With the advantage of historical distance, Cumes has been able to unpick many of the ironies of the Petrov affair and to show how both husband and wife were exploited by the conservative government of the day. The documents Vladimir Petrov took with him when he defected destroyed people's careers and lives, but ultimately proved to be little more than gossip.
In the end the royal commission on espionage, established by Menzies, dismissed the Petrovs as people of small consequence who could not be trusted, except when it came to naming mostly innocent Australians who had supposedly collaborated with them in undermining democracy: in this context the commission found them to be "witnesses of truth".
Far from saving them, Vladmir and Evdokia's defection appears to ultimately have ended their own once loving relationship. "When Vladimir defects, he betrays his cause - whether we regard it as good or evil - his country and his professional ethic," Cumes records. "What he opts for turns out to be a boring and rather feckless freedom."
The Petrovs, given political asylum, lived out their days in almost complete obscurity on a government pension in suburban Melbourne under the names Sven and Maria Allyson.
Vladimir died in 1991 and Eva in 2002.
"Eva and Vladmir would never be forgotten, but they were ignored," Cumes says. "She and Vladimir were able to live out their lives quietly in suburbia. They may have ceased to be lovers and became outcasts, unrecognised and unacclaimed by either side, except as they would be seen as leading actors in an episode of historic conflict."
In that role, "they still symbolise the Cold War and its conflicting ideologies", Cumes says. "They also remind us, even today, how human rights can be violated, even by the well-meaning upholders of freedom and democracy, and how personal lives can be shattered in the process of resolving great political and strategic issues."THE TALE OF VLADIMIR AND EVA
VLADIMIR Petrov came to Australia in 1951 as third secretary in the Soviet embassy in Canberra. He had a double life as a colonel in the MVD, the Soviet secret police. His wife Evdokia (Eva) was also an MVD officer.
After his boss, Soviet security chief Lavrenty Beria, was shot in the wake of Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, Vladimir Petrov feared if he returned to Russia he would also be purged. He contacted the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and sought political asylum in exchange for evidence of Soviet espionage in Australia.
Petrov had not told his wife of his intentions and members of the Soviet secret police were sent to fetch her home. There were violent anti-communist protests at Sydney airport as Eva was escorted on to the plane. She made a last-minute decision to defect with her husband at Darwin airport, and the pictures of her being manhandled by Soviet agents went around the world.
Subsequent events caused a political furore in Australia: the documents Petrov brought with him after his defection allegedly revealed an extensive Soviet spy ring in Australia and named staff members of the then leader of the Australian Labor Party, H.V. (Doc) Evatt.
Prime minister Robert Menzies made great political mileage out of the Petrov affair and established a royal commission on espionage.
The belief that there had been a Petrov conspiracy became an article of faith for the Labor Party. Menzies was accused of arranging the defection to coincide with the 1954 election and to benefit the Liberal Party. Evatt lost the election he had been widely expected to win and Menzies went on to become the country's longest serving prime minister.