Theatre Review: Rita and Douglas, Auckland Town Hall

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rita Angus. Photo / Supplied
Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rita Angus. Photo / Supplied

It is difficult to imagine a better way to appreciate the art of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn than this celebratory tribute in which a sharp dramatisation of their quarrelsome relationship is counterpoised with Michael Houstoun's exquisite renditions of Lilburn's piano works while a luminous display of Angus' paintings appears as an enormous projection.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, stylishly kitted out in period costume, bears an uncanny likeness to the stern persona delineated in Angus' iconic self-portraits and her performance brilliantly inhabits the shifting emotional terrain so candidly revealed in the painter's letters.

The letters themselves are often small masterpieces of terse understatement with marvellously robust sarcasm and pointed observations interspersed with outbursts of pure emotion.

The show convincingly evokes the seriousness and sense of purpose which pervaded the New Zealand art scene in the 1940s. The intense, unashamedly high-brow tone of the post-war artistic community stands in stark contrast to the laid-back vibe of our post-modern era that places supreme value on casual, off-handed irony.

Playwright Dave Armstrong has skilfully assembled excerpts from Angus' letters to create a compelling narrative of a love affair that began with a surge of physical passion but rapidly cooled after a tragic miscarriage.

Neither artist seemed able to find a balance between commitment to family life and the demands of their artistic careers but even during periods of estrangement they maintained a stimulating dialogue that provoked and inspired their artistic endeavours.

Angus constantly defines herself as a misunderstood artist in fierce, uncompromising opposition to a philistine society. Her most vitriolic criticism of Lilburn comes when she attacks him for taking a well-paid university job to support his wife instead of devoting himself to composing.

Angus withdraws into a kind of monastic isolation - haunted by memories of their lost child, unable to complete a treasured portrait of Lilburn.

Michael Houstoun's piano creates a powerful echo for Angus' increasingly sombre moods but even as she slips towards mental breakdown there are glorious moments when the paintings and music seem to find transcendence through meticulous observation of the real world and profound immersion in the beauty of the Otago landscape.


What: Rita and Douglas.

Where: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, till Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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