Ilona's out of the cupboard

By Michele Hewitson

After four years off stage, Illona Rodgers, doyenne of New Zealand actors, gets to be an actor playing an actor - and she loves it, Michele Hewitson discovers.

The young man wandering through the hotel lobby leans into the conversation.

"Sorry to disturb you," he says to actor Illona Rodgers, "I'm a big fan of all your work."

Sweet, reckons Rodgers. Especially as she's "old enough to be his mother."
Fresh from rehearsals of the Auckland Theatre Company's production of David Hare's Amy's View in which the 55-year-old Rodgers plays an ageing but still terrifically grand English actor of the old school, she could pass muster as a particularly glam sort of mother

Not in any obvious sort of way, you understand. The television show Gloss in which she played Maxine, the magazine editor whose mantra, "Greed is Good, Shoulder Pads are Better" became a byword for the 1980s, has long been buried in a television vault somewhere.

What Rodgers has always had is lashings of glamour's quieter cousin - style. Which is not to suggest that there's anything remote or stand-offish about Rodgers, either on or off stage.

She'll put her arm around you minutes after meeting for the first time; she'll make you warm to characters like the Liverpudlian Shirley Valentine and even, she hopes, to the mannered, difficult Esme of Amy's View. That's if she ever learns those dense and devilishly difficult lines.

"It's certainly the biggest thing I've ever done," she wails, banging her head against the fortunately bountifully stuffed hotel cushions.

"Judi Dench [who played the role in London and is now playing Esme on Broadway] said in the last week of rehearsals, `I don't want to do this play, get someone else.' I thought `thank God,' when I heard that.

"You're moving your story through and there are all these interjections ...

"Ack, ack, ack," she goes, making some serviceable machine-gun sound-effects.

"It'll probably be the death of me."

It's all nonsense, of course. She adores the play; adores Hare for having written it.

She gets to be an actor playing an actor and while she's not, obviously, playing herself, "here's a parallel that's interesting. Esme says at one point: `In my head I'm an actress, but what have I actually done? A radio broadcast from Birmingham and a voice-over for a green disinfectant. In fact, I played a germ. Meanwhile it's three, no, four years since I appeared in a play."'

Amy's View is the only play Rodgers will appear in this year. And she says she's not "being rung up and asked to go on television any more - I'm too old."

Does it bother her? There's a long pause before she answers that no, getting bitter and twisted is not her style, but that there are frustrations: "You've got to that point where you know so much more and you're raring to go - and there's nothing there."

Look at Judi Dench, she says. "She's been allowed to roll on continually, plying this craft, going on from one play to another, one film to another. What you see is this wealth of experience constantly being allowed to develop. Whereas your average actor ... You're not an instrument that is tuned up all of the time, you get put in the cupboard to sleep."

Actors, how they love to exaggerate. Because while Rodgers laments that she'd like to learn to slow down a bit "here we all are - cellphone city; stress, stress, stress. It's an interesting thing why you say, `Yes, yes, I'll do it.'"

What she does say yes to are the things she gets her "kicks" from. She teaches acting with Raymond Hawthorne: "I love giving people confidence."

And she is secretary of the Peace Park Trust, which has instigated a project to turn Fraser Park in Parnell into a place for "meditation and contemplation."

"I hope, I hope," she says, sketching the park's design on a table with a couple of glasses and a puddle of water, "that it will be open by 2000."

In the meantime, it is Esme and those lines that are filling her head to the extent that she daren't read much for fear of letting other words in. It helps that she has known Esme's.

The grand dame actors of the drawing-room drama were on the stage in London when Rodgers was growing up in a series of grand hotels run by her parents.

By the time she graduated from the Bristol Old Vic Drama School in the early 60s, those famous ladies who would wait for the applause before they delivered their first lines were being swept away by the first wave of the "angry young men" of the theatre.

"We all had to take our clothes off and have excrement on stage," she says, laughing like anything at the memory of such silliness.

Not a lot of glamour then, but no doubt she managed it in inimitable Rodgers style.

Who: Illona Rodgers

What: Amy's View

Where: Maidment Theatre

When: From next Friday to May 15.

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