Poignant and elegantly told
Rita and Douglas, Circa Theatre, Wellington, 2-12 April 2014
Reviewed by Laurie Atkinson
DomPost 4 April 2014
The rest of the country has been fortunate in having been able to see over the past three years one of those rare theatrical occasions when all the stars have miraculously aligned.
At last it's Wellington's turn to enjoy this simple but superbly presented chamber piece about two artists, Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, whose first meeting was in a Lambton Quay café in 1941.
A grand piano sits on one side of the stage, on the other a desk, some canvasses and an easel. Behind them is a vast canvas on which is projected a generous display of Rita Angus's compelling portraits and landscapes that provide both a vibrant visual pleasure and the subject matter of many of her letters.
Dave Armstrong has taken her letters to Lilburn and edited them so that their strange, sad relationship is always central but we also discover what drove her as an artist and her fearless individualism in an age of conformity.
Apart from her pacifism during the war when she worked on a tobacco farm and was later fined for refusing to work in a factory to support the war effort, we learn almost nothing about her life other than the strangely distant love affair with Lilburn and the tragedy of her miscarriage.
The most revealing moment is when she rages against Lilburn because he has just joined the music staff of Victoria University. He shouldn't be wasting his time teaching when he should be composing full-time and devoting himself to his art.
Lilburn's letters to her were destroyed and so Lilburn's replies in this stage correspondence are created with his music and in the hands of Michael Houstoun the 'writing' is of course eloquent, moving and deeply felt.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand's portrait of Rita is as poignant and subtly revealing as the artist's striking portraits. Angus's most famous self-portrait (poised cigarette/bright green scarf) is brought to life as are the nervous pill-popping habits that eventually led to a brief stay in a mental institution, but it is the artist's steely dedication to her art that is truly memorable in this performance.
(Comment: At least one other review of this production can be found at www.theatreview.org.nz/reviews MH)