Rita and Douglas
Festival of Colour, April 12-17, 2011
Reviewer: Helen Watson White
Listener, May 7, 2011
'...Rita and Douglas is a duet of a most unusual kind. The letters of painter Rita Angus to composer Douglas Lilburn form the basis of a script by Dave Armstrong and performed - with wry humour, grace and poise - by Jennifer Ward-Lealand as the artist, wearing slightly eccentric self-designed clothes. She has an easel, but sits at a table on a square of flooring that looks like a blank canvas: an arena of possibility.
The stage is shared, in a well-judged partnership, with pianist Michael Houstoun - not representing Lilburn, but playing Lilburn's music: now searing, now reflective; grandly assertive or exquisitely quiet and fine; always dynamic and always individual, surprising in its constant shifts and turns.
The third medium in the mix is a series of biographical photographs and a selection of Angus's paintings - self-portraits and landscape watercolours and oils - projected on a screen behind.
The story is only partly about the affair between Rita and Douglas in the early 1940s, which resulted in the artist's pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage: a personal tragedy. Mainly, the letters are Angus's take on what Lilburn called the "predicament" - the "intangible oppression" - of being an artist in a culture with little time for art.
Feminist as well as pacifist, Angus was conscious she shared with other women painters the incompatibility of art-making - her main purpose in life - with the prescribed female role. While she was married to Alfred Cook, she says, "he assumed an authority over me - at his request I destroyed work".
From her first letters to Lilburn, she urged him to follow his art as she intended to follow hers, seeing them as equals although they were never a pair. They did share a great deal, particularly a passionate appreciation of what Lilburn called "the vast and beautiful South Island", which inspired both his music and her art.
This was a celebratory production, fitting for a festival. Autumn's hues - fawn, yellow, gold, bronze, red - were present in the paintings; it didn't take much imagining to "see" them in the Lilburn also.'