Joanna Wane talks politics and female power with the three stars of a provocative new play
With the scarf or without? The stylist likes it, tied loosely at the neck in that chic French way. Director Colin McColl, whose own accessory du jour is a plaid pork pie hat, isn't so sure; he prefers a more severe edge to the steel-blue tailored pant suit Jennifer Ward-Lealand is wearing with such poise and grace.
"She looks good in everything," says one of the makeup artists on hand to give the talent a quick zhuzh between shots and yet another wardrobe change. Cool as a cucumber under the fierce studio lights, Ward-Lealand blows a few raspberries. It takes a moment to realise she's probably just relaxing the muscles in her face. Then the camera starts up again.
When Auckland Theatre Company releases its programme for 2021, headlined by the "glamorous political drama" Two Ladies, the scarf is nowhere to be seen. But Ward-Lealand, pictured alongside co-star Anna Jullienne, is raising her hand in what can only be described as a presidential wave. Which is ironic, really, because the role she plays is the French president's smart, capable and deeply frustrated wife — the "First Lady" — who's been literally shut out from the war room in the aftermath of a global crisis.
Ward-Lealand's character, Helene, is English, but Irish playwright Nancy Harris modelled her on Brigitte Macron, the significantly older wife of French President Emmanuel Macron who faced a public backlash for wielding what was perceived as an undue influence over her husband. In the opposite corner is Jullienne as Sophia, the significantly younger Eastern European ex-model married to the bullish US President. Again, the parallels with the Trumps are clear, including the perception of Melania as a trapped victim (a typical tweet: "Melania blink twice if you need help?")
Harris says Two Ladies was inspired by the sight of Melania and Brigitte standing awkwardly next to their husbands at Bastille Day celebrations in 2017 to mark the centenary of America's entry into World War I.
"These silent women, whose only means of communicating at such events is generally what or who they're wearing — what do they say to one another when the doors close and the cameras depart?" she wrote in The Guardian, before the play's premiere in London late last year. "And what's it like to be in such close proximity to power but not — in the direct sense at least — to have power yourself?"
In her fictional imagining, the two First Ladies take centre stage. Neither husband is seen in the play, which opens an Auckland season in February. Ward-Lealand plans to do some research on Brigitte Macron and her marital relationship, she says, in a meet-the-cast session with Canvas.
"But the bigger question is the role of the First Lady and all the limitations that go with it. You have to be seen as the perfect hostess and not have too many aspirations of your own. The frustration for my character of not being in the room; not wanting to be with this woman [Sophia] but where the seat of power is."
"My character doesn't have that," says Jullienne, who's 20 years younger than Ward-Lealand and playing a trophy wife who slowly reveals a backbone of steel. "She knows she's not in the room. So, she's trying to see what she can do from that position."
Ward-Lealand: "And they come to realise that they have another type of power."
The opening act in ATC's 2021 season, Two Ladies is somewhat of a coup itself, bringing together three of New Zealand's most accomplished and high-profile stars. Ward-Lealand's career spans almost four decades in the performing arts as an actor, director and teacher. Also a trained intimacy co-ordinator, she's just been re-elected as president of Equity NZ for the 12th year and, between lockdowns, launched a set of professional guidelines for actors performing intimate scenes on stage or screen.
Jullienne, who spent eight years on Shortland Street, is an ATC regular — from the Roly Poly Bird in The Twits to the lead in Anne Boleyn. Described in a recent profile as "sunshine in human form", she plays wonderfully against type in her latest gig as an uptight Queen B in Three's comedy series Mean Mums.
Joining them in a supporting role as a press secretary "trying to control the narrative" is Rena Owen, who once played a K Rd hooker on screen alongside Ward-Lealand but is most famously known for her breakthrough role as Beth in Once Were Warriors.
Owen is based in Los Angeles but McColl heard she was back in town working on a feature film and snapped her up for the part.
"Rena has a bit of a rottweiler quality about her that the character of Sandy needs," he says. "She's tough and she's funny. It's quite a comic role, which is unusual for her."
In one of those random twists of fate, the publicity shoot for Two Ladies was held in Auckland on the day of the US presidential election. ("Chin up, Rena!" said McColl, directing from the sidelines, after lending her his glasses to use as a prop.)
Owen, who's worked in the US for many years now, followed the election coverage closely. "I always saw Trump as the Frankenstein of the American Dream," she says. "That's what created him, because the whole dream is based on building bigger and making as much as you can. As a country, they have to deal with the aftermath of that and work out what America is now."
She plays a human/mermaid hybrid in Siren, a hit show on Disney's cable channel Freeform that looked set for a fourth season until it was cancelled in the wake of the pandemic. Seth McFarlane's sci-fi TV series The Orville, in which she had a recurring cameo role, was also put on hold.
Losing her regular gig was a blow. But after three years of back-to-back winters — Siren was shot on location in Vancouver and between seasons she filmed a miniseries in Tasmania — Owen is looking forward to spending summer with her whānau up north. She struggled with the lack of exercise and isolation in quarantine and then again during the second lockdown, developing what she describes as low-grade depression.
"Having been shut down on multiple jobs this year, I've come to the point that I can only afford to go day by day," she says.
"Right now, we all have to just be in the moment, and that's a good way to live."
Ward-Lealand was in the middle of a shoot for Roseanne Liang's new drama series Creamerie when the whole country shut down in March. Work crumbled away so rapidly that at one stage she lost five jobs in a single day but she's philosophical, looking back. "I found it a relief, in a way, because I juggle about 25 balls and being forced to drop 23 of them was quite good for me," she says.
"I felt really devastated for the live-performance sector; it's a delicate eco-system here. But actors are pretty resilient — they have to be. I'm so grateful to be living in New Zealand and able to be working. I've missed being in the room with all of my tribe, and I'm longing for that again."
McColl had just read former US First Lady Michelle Obama's book, Becoming, and watched the subsequent documentary when he picked up the script for Two Ladies, which he says moves from a kind of reality show to an uber feminist fantasy. "They get a bit pagan on it towards the end."
There's actually a reference to our own PM in the play, when Helene notes that it isn't just men but also women in power who look down on her — "even that nice one from New Zealand". McColl says Nancy Harris got terribly excited when she came across a photo online of Ward-Lealand with Jacinda Ardern.
He's come to think of First Ladies as "glamorous prisoners", who have security guards following them to the loo. "I didn't realise how corralled their lives actually are. You might think it's luxury and attention but privacy is very rare."
There's also a socio-political context to the play, with the rise of the MeToo movement exposing male abuse of power, and the vitriol (from both sexes) that's directed at women who dare to step out of line. "Any woman who's in politics or on Twitter gets an enormous amount of trolling," says Ward-Lealand. "No wonder some people remove themselves from the firing line. It's always about being not f***able enough. I don't understand the hatred that goes on."
Owen: "Something derogatory based on gender or culture — they're the go-to targets for trolls. Kamala [Harris] is a 'whore'. You wouldn't do that to a man."
"People feel entitled to comment on women in the public eye — their physicality, their body," says Jullienne, who's a big fan of the way Seven Sharp's Hilary Barry calls out people who attack her on social media for what she wears on screen (Barry recently posted a photo on Instagram of herself in a glam Carla Zampatti dress, tagged #shoulderslut).
Ward-Lealand: "You'd have to think very deeply about your partner going for a role in power and what that would mean for you and your personal career; what you'd have to sacrifice to be at the side of power. It was probably immensely frustrating for Hillary Clinton, who was so accomplished in her own right. And in these days, when everything is commented on, you don't have that air of mystique like Jackie Kennedy, when you could create a sort of Camelot and not be dug into too deeply by the press.
"That iconic photo of a pregnant Jacinda at Buckingham Palace wearing the korowai, with Clarke [Gayford] — her boyfriend — next to her. And both of them looking so blimmin' gorgeous. I thought, 'That's a photograph I want to represent me around the world.'"
Would the world really be a better place if it was run by women? Jullienne has been engrossed in The Crown, where Margaret Thatcher, the UK's first female Prime Minister, is portrayed as cold and unyielding, with little interest in advancing women. But look at the pandemic response, says Ward-Lealand. Most of the countries that have come through the crisis extremely well are led by women.
Owen agrees. "We are better leaders and organisers because as a gender, we're entitled to our emotional worlds, so we can work intuitively and emotionally. Our poor men — and I say this coming from a house of five brothers and four sisters — they're very suppressed. They're not allowed to have their emotional worlds, so a lot of their thinking comes out of ego."
That's a challenge for women who, like Ward-Lealand and Jullienne, are raising sons. "I feel now it's the women's, or the girls' time, which is great," says Jullienne, who has two young boys. "But I do spend a bit of time thinking about where my sons sit in that. I'm trying to create emotionally available little boys who can allow themselves to cry. I notice that with older people — often I have to remind them, 'It's okay, he's hurt himself. He doesn't have to be brave.'"
McColl, who is ATC's artistic director, describes the release of a full programme of work for 2021 as "an act of faith that theatre is alive and well". It's a risk, given the potential for another lockdown or restrictions on public gatherings, but the company surveyed subscribers before making the call and was buoyed by the level of support.
A Zoom production of Chekhov's The Seagull in May (featuring Ward-Lealand) was viewed by more than 37,000 people in seven countries, and a "Back on the Boards" season in September was successfully adapted for alert level 2, with the ASB Waterfront Theatre operating three self-contained audience zones catering to groups of 100.
The first lockdown was "quite a blow", admits McColl. The Government's wage subsidy helped but jobs were lost and services cut. "It has been a bit of a knock, financially and psychologically. I missed being able to be near actors and have them in the rehearsal room. There are innovative ways to keep connected but nothing beats the live experience of being together in a theatre."
It must be said that Two Ladies didn't exactly get rave reviews for its London season, where Zoe Wanamaker played Helene. McColl isn't sure why. He's confident the play has enough entertainment value and political clout to drag people away from their summer barbecues.
Owen, for one, will be very happy to see the back of 2020. "That's something I liked about this play. It's a great upper and a great way to start 2021 with an intelligent, funny, sexy, glamorous production that will be a really entertaining night at the theatre. I think it's going to be a lot of fun."
Auckland Theatre Company's New Zealand premiere of Two Ladies runs in Auckland from February 9 to 27, then tours to Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth and Hawke's Bay in March (atc.co.nz).