Magic handful of letters and piano
Rita and Douglas, Lake Wanaka Centre, April 16
Jazzing It Up, Lake Wanaka Centre, April 17
Reviewer: Nigel Zega
Otago Daily Times, Monday 18 April
Rita and Douglas is a poignant tribute to two of New Zealand's cultural icons.
Actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand, pianist Michael Houstoun and writer Dave Armstrong have excelled themselves in creating riveting drama with little more than a handful of letters and a piano.
It's a one-sided account of the up-down relationship between painter Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn, adapted by Armstrong from Angus' letters to her one-time lover.
Lilburn's written replies to Angus were destroyed, so while we have her letters, we have only his notes, selections of his lyrical, beautiful music played with exquisite sensitivity by Houstoun.
Our education about Rita begins with her meeting Lilburn in Wellington in 1941, and follows their brief affair, her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, and their friendship over the next 30 years until her death from cancer in 1970.
Their story is aptly illustrated with projected images of Angus' work along with rare photographs chosen in consultation with Angus' biographer Jill Trevelyan, who helped with constructing a picture of the enigmatic artist.
Ward-Lealand rises magnificently to the challenge of bringing life to the character and mannerisms of a mysterious woman who tended to keep herself to herself.
Drawing heavily on what little we know of Angus, Ward-Lealand gives us a deeply moving portrayal, switching emotions from occasional warmth and light-heartedness to frustration, cold fury and depressed despair.
The temptation to rename the artist Rita Anguish is irresistible, as she fought a series of demons that bedevilled her.
Why did Lilburn initially abandon her? Why did their child die? Why was it so hard to play the role of painter and woman? Why was friendship so difficult?
Armstrong's carefully chosen selections of Angus' letters show that she could paint pictures equally well with words, just as Lilburn could match the beauty found in her landscapes with his music.
Angus' stern self-portraits may be familiar. Rita and Douglas, directed by Conrad Newport, reveals much, much more.
In Jazzing It Up, Michael Houstoun reveals another side to his talent, playing works by two composers who successfully and unusually straddle the worlds of classical music and jazz.
Houstoun's spirited playing of Nikolai Kapustin's varied and complex compositions ranged from cheeky speakeasy sounds to the slow cool ambiance of late-night cocktail lounges and then to bar-room swing and honky-tonk blues.
And with a Bach-inspired work from Friedrich Gulda, Houstoun demonstrates how well classics can swing when played by a master.