Evita: All through her wild days

By Dionne Christian

Heather Wilcock tells Dionne Christian why, despite the duality and the challenges, she relishes the role of Eva Peron.
Heather Wilcock in her role as Eva Peron and with Evita co-star Russell Dixon in Hairspray.
Heather Wilcock in her role as Eva Peron and with Evita co-star Russell Dixon in Hairspray.

Last time they were together on stage, Heather Wilcock and Russell Dixon played mother and daughter; this time round, they're "glamming up" to play one of the most sophisticated power couples of the 20th century.

They have lead roles in the Auckland production of Evita, the story of the glamorous first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron. Wilcock plays Eva while Dixon plays Juan Peron, who was President of Argentina from 1946-1955, before he was ousted in a coup, later returning to govern from 1973 until his death in 1974.

Back in 2014, Wilcock put on a padded costume and big wig to sing and dance her way into the hearts of anyone who saw her as teen Tracy Turnblad in the musical Hairspray at SkyCity. The transformation was more dramatic for co-star Dixon who, in keeping with what's become a Hairspray tradition, donned drag and an even bigger wig to play Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad.

"Russell and I have made a heap of jokes about our previous roles but now we've made a pact not to keep talking about it or it will get weird," says Wilcock, "but it's good to be working together again because Eva and Peron have to have a real connection and, because Russell and I are already good friends and we get on like a house on fire.

Evita.
Evita.


"We know how we work and don't have to establish a relationship to begin with."

As she says, Eva is a big enough role without concerns about getting on with one's closest co-star. Set in Buenos Aires between 1934 and 1952, Evita charts the rags-to-riches rise of the First Lady of Argentina, who won the love of the people after marrying Juan Peron.

Wilcock, 22, plays Eva as a teenager, making her way from a slum neighbourhood where she was raised by a single mother, to the Argentinian capital where she became an actress and, aged 25, met Peron.

The couple married a year later and Eva, strongly influenced by her background, became a tireless worker for labour rights and equality, running the Ministries of Labour and Health as well as her own charity, the Eva Peron Foundation. She championed women's suffrage and founded and ran the country's first significant women's political party.

But Eva's flame burned brightly and briefly; she died from ovarian cancer in 1952 aged just 33, plunging Argentina into mourning.

More than half a century later, she is still remembered there with love and admiration.

Overhearing our interview, a woman sitting behind us says when she lived in Argentina in the 1970s, bus drivers still had pictures of Eva stuck to their windows, and visitors queued at her tomb to pay their respects. But Wilcock says there is evidence that money Eva raised ended up in private Swiss bank accounts for her own use and security.

And though Wilcock played Eva in a Wellington season of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, getting to the woman beneath the glamorous facade still challenges her.

Evita.
Evita.


"It makes it difficult to know whether she truly was a good person and, for me, it becomes a question of what sides of her do I emphasise? Because she was a real person, and held in such high esteem by the Argentinian people, there's also an extra layer of responsibility and pressure to get it right.

"That's why I've done a lot of research, and the ways in which I'm torn about whether she was a good or bad person help me to portray her as a complex woman who inevitably had a harder side because to rise to power in the way she did, you needed to be pretty tough.

"It was an era when women simply didn't have a lot of power or opportunities to use what they had."

Naturally, the relationship between Eva and Peron, 24 years her senior, has been questioned but Wilcock believes the two really did come to love each other.

"I think it started out as a marriage of convenience for Eva but, as time went on, it grew and became a lot more than that."

The production features lavish costumes and sets designed by Stephen Robertson.

Wilcock has 18 costumes in total, plus four wigs and 12 pairs of shoes and says getting into some of the gorgeous gowns and power suits is a vital part of her transformation from North Shore actor to Argentina's First Lady. "I want people who come to see this to be completely immersed in the whole thing and to really believe I am the character.

"The costumes are very important because I play Eva during a 17-year span from her teenage years through to her death, so they help to make that progression."

The events in Eva's life are presented in song and talked about by the show's narrator, Che (played by Matt Pike), but Wilcock sings many of its most demanding vocal numbers including the iconic ballad Don't Cry For Me Argentina.

Not surprisingly, she says it is probably the most emotionally and vocally challenging role she has ever played but Wilcock would be keen to reprise it after Auckland for a season in Christchurch if he gets the chance.

"It's not just a 'good role for a woman'; it's a good role, full stop."

Need to know

What: Evita
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, May 28 - June 18.

- NZ Herald

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