Performance Preview: Rita & Douglas, Auckland Town Hall

In playing Rita Angus Jennifer Ward-Lealand says she tries to be true to the artist's letters that Rita & Douglas draws on. Photo / Supplied
In playing Rita Angus Jennifer Ward-Lealand says she tries to be true to the artist's letters that Rita & Douglas draws on. Photo / Supplied

There's a moment in Dave Armstrong's play Rita & Douglas when the Port Hills are celebrated in art and music. Jennifer Ward-Lealand, playing artist Rita Angus, steps back and surveys a painting she has completed of the Christchurch landmark; musician Michael Houstoun begins playing composer Douglas Lilburn's Bagatelle No 4 From the Port Hills.

And that's exactly when, during a performance of the play in the Rudolf Steiner School hall in Opawa, with the Port Hills looming large behind, Christchurch experienced another earthquake aftershock.

Sceptics will dismiss it as coincidence; others may interpret it as a sign Angus and Lilburn - the Rita and Douglas of this production - are watching the story of their intense and intriguing love affair unfold.

But would they approve? Playwright Armstrong, writer of Niu Sila (with Oscar Kightley), The Tutor, Le Sud, King and Country and the stage adaptation of Sia Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged, likes to think they would enjoy it.

They are portrayed as feisty and determined, loyal and dedicated.

Their work is celebrated by the inclusion of Lilburn's music and projected images of Angus' paintings.

It is a production that combines art, music, literature and history.

Through the production's use of letters Angus wrote to Lilburn, the feelings they had for one another are revealed as well as valuable insights into the cultural milieu of New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s.

Armstrong says that's a history worth remembering not only because it was interesting in its own right but because it laid the groundwork for many contemporary artists and musicians.

Armstrong, a professional musician who trained at Victoria University with Lilburn as a lecturer, says the composer must have meant for the letters to be read and discussed when he bequeathed them to the Alexander Turnbull Library.

"Otherwise why put them in the Turnbull Library for all the world to see?"

Rita & Douglas focuses on a small but highly influential chapter in the lives of its protagonists: 1941-53.

The two met in Wellington in 1942. Angus had recently divorced and, turning her back on convention, was determined to become a full-time painter; Lilburn was a shy young composer.

They embarked on a brief love affair which ended in tragedy yet during that time Angus produced some of her best work.

Lilburn kept Angus' letters, described by Armstrong as about 200 pages of "intense, heart-felt writings" spanning several years. If Angus kept Lilburn's replies, no trace of those letters has been found.

Armstrong read them when friend and colleague Jill Trevelyan was writing the award-winning biography Rita Angus: An Artist's Life. He figured they could provide material for a play, partly because they revealed Angus to be such a strong character. "And that's always a good start to a show if you can begin by finding a great character."

Given the amount of material available, he had to draw a defined boundary to create a workable theatre production which would keep audiences engaged.

With friend and regular collaborator director Conrad Newport, Armstrong reduced an "enormous script" down to a more manageable 90 minutes. The pair made Lilburn's music his response to Angus' letters.

Armstrong acknowledges working on a story about real people, with friends and relatives still living, brings with it a responsibility to do no harm but he says those feelings should not paralyse creativity.

"I actually worry about the emotional story and the responsibility of telling one which is true to the spirit of the characters. You try to be as accurate as you can be, but sometimes you have to take a risk."

Ward-Lealand says she tries to interpret and be true to each of the letters featured.

"I give as much to those letters as they deserve because each one is different. There is an enormous depth of feeling and each one has a particular mood. I have to move the audience through as Rita moves through all of these moods, remembering the words were written to be read rather than spoken.

"My job is to lift her words off the page. Rita was a great writer with an extraordinary turn of phrase who did not hold anything back. I suppose you could say some of them are the equivalent of a modern-day email sent in haste because she's apologising in the next letter for something she said in the previous one."

Performance

What: Rita & Douglas

Where & When: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall, November 22-26; due to demand another performance has been added for November 26 at 2pm

- NZ Herald

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