After the 2020 season was almost entirely written off, Auckland Theatre Company has returned with Two Ladies, the first of six shows in what it hopes will be an uninterrupted season.
But as the recent lockdown shows, it will be a while before things return to normality of pre-Covid. Although the Champagne was flowing in the foyer on opening night, on stage, just five cast members occupied a simple set filled solely by an assortment of chairs, with two paintings hanging in the far background to break up the bare walls.
The company is working on a smaller scale, but when it comes to the actors, ATC has cut no corners. Anna Jullienne and Jennifer Ward-Lealand are stunning as our Two Ladies, playing contrasting First Ladies in a fictionalised take on the Trumps and the Macrons that turns the lens on life by a president's side.
The US President is in France in the weeks after a deadly terrorist attack, seeking his counterpart's support for a revenge invasion. While the two men debate off stage, their wives are essentially trapped in a conference room, waiting for them to finish.
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Ward-Lealand is Hélène, the French First Lady and a British former journalist who is said to hold extraordinary influence over her much younger husband, squaring off against Jullienne's Sophia, a Croatian former model married to a much older conservative husband.
Playwright Nancy Harris uses the prism of the First Ladies to discuss power and the impact of political partners, but her choice of argument rapidly falls apart. The play relies on Ward-Lealand and Jullienne to elevate the text, and their captivating performances do so with ease.
Ward-Lealand and Jullienne complement each other perfectly, and the stage crackles with energy as the two characters face off. Jullienne is utterly compelling and convincing as Sophia; it's a shame that the role is so tied to Melania, as Jullienne plays her First Lady with more cunning and conviction than you could imagine from her real-life counterpart. Ward-Lealand meanwhile starts off playing the seemingly wiser and more put-together of the pair, but, as tensions with her husband creep to the surface, perfectly portrays her restrained breakdown.
The play moves at a rapid pace when focused on the women's lives, but the brakes are slammed on every time the supporting cast enters the frame. The press secretaries, played by Adam Gardiner and Rena Owen, feel like redundant add-ons who exist solely to add drama.
It doesn't help that their accents seem drawn from entirely different plays. Gardiner's Monty Python-esque French gives the scenes more comedy than feels intended, and Owen's creaky American distracted from her character's sole moment of glory. Given that one of the few people to survive Trump's full term was a New Zealander, it seemed like a missed opportunity to skip the accent and add a local twist to the character.
Ban Abdul's waitress Fatima adds welcome light relief, and a different perspective to the play. Two Ladies is all about the two women at its centre, and excels thanks to the women playing them. The plot takes some surprising turns after the interval that will divide audiences, but in the capable hands of Jullienne and Ward-Lealand, you can believe even the most complex of twists.
What: Two Ladies
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until Feb 27 – then touring nationally
Alert level 2 restrictions apply to the show