POIGNANT AND ELEGANTLY TOLD
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 Laurie Atkinson, 4 Apr 2014
originally published in The Dominion Post
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 had 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.
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Michael Monti (Nelson Mail);