Rita and Douglas
The letters of Rita Angus to Douglas ‘Gordon’ Lilburn
adapted for the stage by Dave Armstrong
with music for piano by Lilburn
Directed by Conrad Newport
Presented by Armstrong Creative
at Circa One, Wellington
From 2 Apr 2014 to 12 Apr 2014
[1hr 15min, no interval]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 3 Apr 2014
It is a truism of theatre that when everything comes together in a well-wrought play and production, the contents resonate well beyond themselves. So it is with Rita and Douglas. At first glance it's a simple conflation of letters being read aloud, piano music played live and visual images projected. This apparent simplicity proves how well it's been crafted.
Writer Dave Armstrong has presided over the sifting, selecting and adapting of the many letters Rita Angus wrote to Gordon (Douglas) Lilburn to create the text through which Jennifer Ward-Lealand brings Rita to life. It is an emotionally intelligent performance that – combined with the way she handles her brushes, paint pots, canvasses and her never-ending cigarette – manifests a rich spectrum of human experience.
Initially her ebullience seems to contradict the seriousness Rita invariably expressed in her many unsmiling self-portraits. But this is the passionate inner self we are witnessing on stage, in intimate communion with ‘Gordon' (seven years her junior). Besides, a number of photos capture her more relaxed and smiling self.
There are, in performance, moments of seething anger too, and vulnerability, which are all the more powerful for breaking through her strong willed determination and independence in the face of misogyny, male chauvinism and opposition to her pacifism. Her “Dear Gordon …” letters reveal dimensions of her being that dramatically illuminate the judiciously selected images, projected large on a backcloth. We see her familiar landscapes and portraits afresh in this context.
While Lilburn's letters in reply didn't survive we can glean their tone and tenor from some from Rita's responses, but his true presence comes with Michael Houstoun's flawless playing of 30 pieces for solo piano, live, on a grand piano. These are not rendered in chronological order; a great deal of thought has gone into selecting what to play when.
In part the music creates a dialogue with Rita's letters. At other times it complements or counterpoints the projected paintings, sketches, and photographs evoking the times and places. Often insistently hammering the high notes with the foot firmly on the loud pedal, his ‘voice' is never sentimental nor romantic, only sometimes gentle yet always richly expressive. A musician friend describes it as cerebral, although in ‘conversation' with the letters and images it certainly provokes emotions in Rita, and her works.
Their sleeping together is revealed early on, his resistance to any conventional ‘romantic' follow-through is clearly implied through Rita's replies and her notions about sex as a vital driving force for the artist are clearly stated. Her pregnancy, to him, and the ensuing miscarriage becomes a poignant through-line in the journey through their unusual relationship; all the more powerful for its being mentioned only when and how Rita wishes it to be.
Intriguingly – because the spoken text is confined entirely to what Rita wrote to ‘Gordon', and the projected text simply orientates us to times and place – Lilburn's homosexuality (illegal at the time) is not explicitly mentioned. A number of photographs suggest it, however, and to know this is so adds a whole new dimension to the play's insights into their relationship and the social mores of that time. Given its necessarily clandestine practice, I certainly feel I detect Lilburn's inner struggle, discomfort and even rage in some of the music.
The fact that Rita was married briefly (to Alfred Cook) is also only hinted at initially, when paintings are suddenly signed “Rita Cook”. Cleverly the question this raises is allowed to sit until our desire to know is rewarded with Rita's blistering account of what ensued and why she will never marry again.
Her obsessive commitment to the solitary artist ideal (albeit subsidised by parental largesse) juxtaposed with her need for ‘Gordon' in her life, the extraordinary range of styles she explored in her work, her frustration in trying to complete her oil portrait of Lilburn (following the now iconic watercolour), her self-medication with bromide and its contribution to her health issues … All these elements contribute to the play's thematic coherence and strong dramatic structure.
Producer Caroline Armstrong has assembled a hugely talented team to create this show and director Conrad Newport has co-ordinated their skills to produce a deeply insightful 75 minutes of compelling theatre.
The lighting design by Paul O'Brien, who also operates and designed the setting, directs our eyes where they need to go and, every now and then, the colour tone and shadows capture Rita as if in one of her paintings. Her wardobe, designed by Nic Smillie (and made by Sheila Horton, Elizabeth Gibbons and Peter Rigby), also steps down from the canvasses, and the hair styling – presumably by Ward-Leyland herself – completes the authentic-looking picture.
Small wrinkles in the backcloth do put a repetitive blemish into the images and it would be good if that was fixed but the AV design by O'Brien, Rob Larsen and Danny Mulholland, and the selection and timing of the images, add immeasurably to our profound engagement with the central relationship.
It has taken three years for Rita and Douglas to get to Wellington and it is only at Circa until Saturday week (12 April) so don't miss out. This is top shelf theatre.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
Michael Monti (Nelson Mail);