Rita and Douglas

Queenstown Memorial Hall, Queenstown

12/04/2011 - 12/04/2011

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

02/04/2014 - 12/04/2014

Baycourt - Addison Theatre, Tauranga

20/10/2011 - 20/10/2011

Kings & Queens, Performing Arts Centre, Dunedin

05/10/2012 - 07/10/2012

Wanaka Masonic Hall, Wanaka

16/04/2011 - 16/04/2011

Concert Chamber - Town Hall, THE EDGE, Auckland

22/11/2011 - 26/11/2011

Theatre Royal, 78 Rutherford Street, Nelson

16/10/2011 - 17/10/2011

Tauranga Arts Festival 2011

Southern Lakes Festival of Colour

Production Details

Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn met in the early 1940s. The recently divorced painter and the young composer had a brief but passionate affair. Living in virtual poverty and struggling with health issues, Rita Angus went on to single-mindedly produce a stunning body of work. Rita and Douglas combines Angus’ images, and her own words from her letters to Lilburn, together with his music for piano, performed live by Michael Houstoun.

Two of the country’s leading performers, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Houstoun, join together to present the words, music and images of two of New Zealand’s cultural icons.

Rita and Douglas combines stunning theatre, music and art to tell a most unusual love story that lies at the heart of New Zealand’s cultural history.

“That first night, Gordon, that I slept with you, I wanted to release music in you – and I succeeded in my desire.”
Rita Angus to Douglas Lilburn. 1942

“Jennifer Ward-Lealand gives a master class in acting that makes for must-see theatre.”
New Zealand Herald

“A virtuosity and musicianship unrivalled on these shores.”
New Zealand Herald on Michael Houstoun.


12 April, 7pm, Queenstown Memorial Hall, Door sales from 6pm
16 April, 7pm, 9.30pm, Lake Wanaka Centre, Book Online 

Duration: 75 minutes no interval
Price: $36

Book Online: Tickets for most shows can be booked online  
Book by Phone: Call +64 3 443 4162
Terms & Conditions: View terms and conditions

Venue Maps: Download venue maps (PDF, 310KB) 
Supported By: Creative New Zealand 
Sponsored By: Anderson Lloyd    


Theatre Royal 
Sun 16 Oct, Mon 17 IOct

22nd – 26th November, Tues-Thurs 7pm; Fri & Sat 8pm
Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall, THE EDGE
$39.90 – $44.90 (booking fees will apply)
Tickets available through THE EDGE – 0800 BUY TICKETS or www.buytickets.co.nz  



Kings And Queens Performing Arts Centre
Fri 5 & Sat 6 Oct 8pm
Sun 7 Oct 2pm & 8pm
Duration 1hr 15mins, No Interval
General Admission
$44 / $38
Student $25 


After sell-out seasons around the country, Rita and Douglas comes to Wellington. Two of New Zealand’s leading performer.


02 April − 12 April 2014
Tuesday and Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday – Saturday 8pm
Sunday 4pm
Running time 75 minutes (no interval)   

Featuring Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Houstoun.

Producer – Caroline Armstrong, Armstrong Creative

Set and Lighting Design – Paul O’Brien

Costume Design – Nic Smillie

AV Design – Paul O’Brien, Rob Larsen and Danny Mulholland

Stage Manager – Lucie Camp

Technical Operator - Paul O’Brien

Costume Construction - Sheila Horton, Elizabeth Gibbons

Tailor - Peter Rigby

Textile Artist, Bowerman School of Design- James Flynn


Image and Biographical Consultant – Jill Trevelyan

Image Researcher – Rebekah Clements

Caption Design– Emily Fletcher 


Theatre , Musical ,

1hr 15min, no interval

Poignant and elegantly told

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Apr 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 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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Deeply insightful

Review by John Smythe 03rd 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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Freshness, vitality, clarity and quality

Review by Patrick Davies 06th Oct 2012

A simple meeting for coffee between two artists turns into a relationship that will provoke and help define the other for the rest of their lives. The story of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn’s relationship is the stuff of legend and brilliantly realised in this Dave Armstrong / Conrad Newport collaboration.

A deceptively simple set (Paul O’Brien): vast blank canvas at the back reflected to one side by the canvas square of white on which sits a table (white tablecloth); canvas backed chair and an artist’s easel with white canvas ready to be used. This, again, is lit simply(O’Brien again).

There is no colour here – all the marvellous emotion and raw-boned vibrancy will be provided by the paintings themselves and Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s voice. To the other side of the stage, against black curtains, a black grand piano on which will sit Michael Houstoun, his profile becoming a bright cameo in the darkness. Each artist to their side of the stage; behind them the canvas conveys titles and photographs to support the narrative.

A picture paints a thousand words and the restrained use of photos gives us a sense of the outside world and society that these artists lived apart from. It is also the literal canvas onto which are projected Angus’ awe-inspiring work. Later in the play the Central Otago series garners intakes of breath from those around me. 

Costumes by Nic Smillie, Sheila Horton & Elizabeth Gibbons are also direct and iconic, you cannot mistake Ward-Lealand for anyone else but Rita Angus, and they capture the time and the woman we see in the portraits. 

In arranging his choice of excerpts of Rita’s letters to Douglas, Dave Armstrong has painted a portrait of the relationship rather than a history lesson about two New Zealand artists. And this is part of the overall genius of the production. Yes, we start at the beginning and end at the end, but Armstrong lets the colours of the relationship propel us through the events.

Rita’s responses to events delight, inform and fill in that enigmatic and sly smile we can still see on the gallery’s wall. Never one to be too concerned about her outside reputation – “What is a reputation? I’ve never seen one” – we see her insecurity and strength at the same time. The way she saw the world and the absolute of the artist’s demands colour everything – “That golden glow over everything – the colour of [Douglas’s] curtains” when speaking of Central Otago. Her attitudes to her and Douglas’s miscarriage, mental illness and war open up this enigmatic woman: “How simple and wonderful living is”.

It is such a pity that Douglas’ letters to her were destroyed after her death. Or is it? His lack of ‘vocal’ voice helps us understand Rita’s tempestuous feelings towards him. His silence is a vast hole she sometimes rails against, and sometimes abhors. 

Armstrong studied with Lilburn and performed in the premiere of one of his works. The choices of music provide support, illumination, counterpoint if not some kind of reply by Lilburn. Pieces range from jolly to sombre; chaotic to sensorial; remonstrative to lyrical. Each is more than soundscape; each provides nuance and timbre to Rita’s journey.

Conrad Newport has been at the head of a number of Armstrong productions and his wit, sense, delicacy and assuredness are all present here. He brilliantly allows the production artists to bring their full talent in such a way to allow the four artists onstage to conjure magic. Finding the right balance between too little and too much, with a firm control of place and pace, the 75 minutes are full and pass easily.

Armstrong’s cheekiness may be beautifully realised when Ward-Lealand steps out in that coat, with that cigarette, with that green beret and, for an utterly delightful moment, sits in that pose underneath that portrait which is so well known. But it is in moments such as when Angus’s seaside portrait of Lilburn comes onscreen seemingly to stare directly at Houstoun, who returns his gaze – one astounding musician connecting in a living way with another, without detracting from the onstage action – that Newport’s subtlety works wonders: a thrillingly electric moment. 

Jennifer Ward-Leland’s Rita is as fresh and vital as she appears in her portraits; the underlying anguish / joy as seen in those portraits’ eyes fully felt through her delivery. She never seems to be ‘reciting letters’ even when writing them onstage, she embodies all the many emotions, reflections and demands as though Douglas is in the room. I feel I have met, quite intimately, one of my heroes. Simply stunning.

To be able to hear Lilburn’s work live is wonderful. To hear it played by Michael Houstoun is astounding. His clarity and quality with Lilburn are just as dynamic and colourful as Angus’ painting. You can hear the many voices that appear through Lilburn’s work, which makes me think he is the child of Ralph Vaughn Williams and Bela Bartok. His playing is resplendent with grace and that “vital power” that Rita talks of. His male and silent presence a beautiful encapsulation of Lilburn’s presence in this show; both only speaking through the instrument which, when finished, leaves a silence.

This is a tremendous production by Armstrong Creative in which four of our pre-eminent artists in New Zealand engage each other onstage while an audience sits in awe. To quote Rita, “Glorious.”  


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Artist’s liaisons make for evocative viewing

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 24th Nov 2011

It is difficult to imagine a better way to appreciate the art of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn than this celebratory tribute in which a sharp dramatisation of their quarrelsome relationship is counterpoised with Michael Houstoun’s exquisite renditions of Lilburn’s piano works while a luminous display of Angus’ paintings appears as an enormous projection.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, stylishly kitted out in period costume, bears an uncanny likeness to the stern persona delineated in Angus’ iconic self-portraits and her performance brilliantly inhabits the shifting emotional terrain so candidly revealed in the painter’s letters. [More


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Remarkably deep and revealing

Review by Aidan-B. Howard 23rd Nov 2011

The famous artist Rita Angus (for a short time known also as Rita Cook and Rita McKenzie but actually born as Henrietta) and composer Douglas Lilburn (to some known as Gordon) for decades from the 1940s to 1960s had a relationship which was part friendship, part affair. It had profound effects on the lives and creativity of both of them.

Angus gets pregnant, but has a miscarriage which, despite her belief in her own inner strength, in fact has deep-seated and recurring effects on her for years to come. She eventually has a psychological breakdown, diagnosed as “toxic exhaustive psychosis” (which used to be a lame diagnosis that women ‘poisoned’ their minds by not eating enough and withering away): for this she was given electric shock treatment at the notorious Sunnyside Hospital.

This play, Rita and Douglas, is a one-sided look at that relationship, in that it is entirely derived from the letters which Angus sent to Lilburn. His written replies did not survive; his music responds to her words. Many more than we hear were written, but the ‘writer’, Dave Armstrong, selects just the right ones to portray the essence of the sometimes rocky and “fractious” relationship.

The exquisite performances by veteran actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand and famous pianist Michael Houstoun work together so well that the spoken word and the music seamlessly intermesh as if the piano itself were an actor playing Lilburn’s part against the chaos of Angus’ frenetic and failing psyche. Ward-Lealand delivers her performance with crispness and clarity and clearly a deep-seated love of the character.

The set is stark and uncluttered, allowing us to focus on the three main ingredients: the letters, the music and the paintings, shown in a constant series of backdrop slides. Their order is skillfully calculated, even leading from time to time to a subtle and bitter irony. For example, the first time we learn of this painful miscarriage by Angus, the painting in the background is one of her many self-portraits, in which there another painting on the wall – a painting within a painting, just as a pregnancy is a life within a life, but that smaller painting is undeveloped.

Because the play is only 75 minutes long, it remains snappy and entertaining, often humorous (including a theatrical cigarette which gets smoked over a thirty-year period and never gets any shorter). It is remarkably deep and revealing for the limited source at hand and is a very worthwhile watch for those who love the New Zealand creative history and those who know little about it alike.

If I were in the habit of rating, I would give it a 9 stars out of ten.


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Literate and lyrical

Review by Penny Jackson 27th Oct 2011

Art and music come together in Dave Armstrong’s theatrical production Rita & Douglas.  Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn were two of New Zealand’s most creative and innovative artists.  They met in the early 1940s and had a brief physical relationship.

Rita & Douglas traces the tumultuous years of their relationship and is told through the letters Rita Angus wrote to Douglas Lilburn up to 1969, the year prior to her death.  Jennifer Ward-Lealand, as Rita Angus, is not only a wonderful lookalike but she gets inside her character with such convincing ease and depth. 

Rita Angus’ outpouring of emotion and angst is well-delivered and accurate.  The couples’ relationship borders on the extremities of love and hate.  Rita Angus couldn’t let Douglas Lilburn ‘go’ and continued throughout her life to include/exclude him in her life, all articulated through her letters.  He literally got under her skin.  This performance also highlighted a by-gone era of letter writing. 

Performed against a background of images, both well known and new, this gave a further dimension to the narrative.  Art was Rita Angus’ life and inclusion of these images assisted in contextualising the works with her life-story. 

Douglas Lilburn’s piano movements are lyrical and beautiful.  And it’s the music that makes Rita & Douglas so successful.  Michael Houston’s performance was impeccable.  The timing between Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s narrative and Michael Houston’s playing was uncanny in its perfection and cohesiveness. 

Rita Angus is one of New Zealand’s best-loved artists and this play adds to the canon of literature and exhibitions already in existence about her. This performance was well titled, Rita & Douglas, for it was very much the story told from Rita Angus’ perspective.  Douglas & Rita would not have worked. 

Performed by two of New Zealand’s most creative and respected performers, Rita & Douglas, was a welcome treat for followers of art and music in Tauranga.  Perhaps Rita & Douglas would have suited a smaller theatre to enhance the intimacy of the subjects’ relationship.  


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Play sheds light on top artists’ lives

Review by Michael Monti 17th Oct 2011

This is a dramatisation of the relationship between painter Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn using the letters Angus sent to Lilburn.

They first met in Wellington in 1942 and had a brief sexual relationship resulting in a pregnancy which ended with a miscarriage. Lilburn was homosexual and Angus remained celibate from then on. [More


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Seamless mix of words and music

Review by Gail Tresidder 17th Oct 2011

It was inevitable that Rita Angus, a troubled genius, stoic, strange and difficult, who painted like an angel, and Douglas Lilburn, the odd one out in a farming family, for whom composing, playing and teaching music was a passion, would find in each other a kindred spirit.  Their deep friendship lasted from their meeting in the early 1940s until Rita’s death in hospital in January 1970 with Douglas Lilburn, her beloved “Gordon”, there at her bedside.

For many reasons it was never to be an easy relationship.  Rita was a one-off passionate eccentric while Douglas, conflicted with his sexuality, was more conventional and cared about his image/status in society.  They conceived a child but Rita miscarried, to her life-long grief and, one suspects, to Douglas’s relief.   Over the years they wrote often – we must be grateful that email had not been invented – and the letters from Rita to Douglas (his to her were destroyed after her death) form the basis of this marvellous piece of multi-dimensional theatre. 

The simple set – easel with draped artist’s smock, table and chair, stacked canvases and paint brushes, and an opening back projection of blue sky and clouds for Rita, nature-lover – reflects the artist’s Spartan lifestyle.  Michael Houston quietly enters and plays a movement from Lilburn’s Sonata 1956.   Jennifer Ward-Lealand reads from a letter to Betty Curnow – together a charming introduction.

Behind them a series of black and white photographs, cleverly intermixed with excellent quality reproductions of Rita’s paintings, bring the style and mood of the times to life.  Congratulations to lighting designer Paul O’Brien and his AV Design collaborators Rob Larsen and Danny Mulholland. 

As a young woman, Rita Angus enjoyed clothes and showing off her slim elegant figure.  Ward-Lealand, notably wearing a trench coat, as seen in an Angus self-portrait, and then a dress with embroidered flowers (Rita’s pride and joy) and with  hair-style, mannerisms and little ways, gave us Rita once again.   It is a wonderful performance.   With her monologue taken from the letters and in the way Ward-Lealand gives these words life, we really understand the ups and downs of this turbulent, yet always loving, relationship.

Throughout, Houston plays a large number of Lilburn compositions, for the most part music tender and delicate.  The words and music mix seamlessly. 

From Rita to Douglas: “I have been painting better since I knew you.” Her exquisite water-colour of a young Douglas a testament to the way she felt about him.  It is perhaps telling that an oil portrait of Douglas, worked and reworked for years, like her love for him, was never completed.

A photographic portrait taken of Rita by the brilliant Marti Friedlander just a year before Rita died, shows a serene woman, only 61 but looking 70, already ill with the cancer that killed her, and beautiful with the knowledge of her accomplishment.  Of all the images in the production, it is this, along with Rita’s art and Lilburn’s music, that will remain in my memory for a long time to come. 


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Novel and captivating

Review by Laura Williamson 17th Apr 2011

“I am grateful to you for bringing the painter and the woman in harmony,” Rita Angus wrote to the composer Douglas Lilburn. Rita and Douglas does the same.

Angus and Lilburn had brief love affair in the early 1940s. The relationship didn’t last but the two remained on-and-off friends until Angus’ death in 1970. While their friendship was stormy, they always admired and supported each other as artists.

The set for Rita and Douglas is sparse, with only a table, an easel and a piano on stage. This is then reflected in the structural simplicity of the whole play, which tells the story through three elements: Rita’s letters to Douglas, her paintings, and his music.

Yet the narrative doesn’t feel simple. This is in part due to Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s commanding performance as Rita Angus. The only actor on stage for the 80-minute running time, she manages, for example, to convey Angus’ oscillations between rage and grief, arrogance and humour, all by changing the inflection of “Love, Rita,” the two words that sign off each letter.

As well as being the touching story of a relationship, Rita and Douglas is also a lesson in art. As Angus writes of the landscapes around her, her sketches and then finished paintings of the same are projected on a backdrop – we inhabit her mind as she both observes and creates.

The narrative is teased out slowly, with Ward-Lealand leaving the stage often. The audience is alone with Angus’ projected paintings and Lilburn’s music, played masterfully by Michael Houstoun. These moments are needed, a chance to reflect on the work as if in a gallery. But they are also Lilburn’s opportunity to speak – he responds to her letters with music. Slowly it becomes clear that while there is no dialogue, there is conversation.

Several works recur multiple times, including Angus’ watercolour portrait of Lilburn. As we learn more of him, and of her, we see new things in the painting. A neat trick.

More than the story of a friendship, Rita and Douglas is a novel and captivating look at the personal and creative life of one of New Zealand’s greatest painters, and at what it means to be an artist.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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True genius

Review by Margaret O’Hanlon 15th Apr 2011

Rita and Douglas is a brilliant glimpse into the intimate but somewhat tumultuous relationship between Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn.  A careful and compelling script created from excerpts of the letters written by Rita to Douglas is thanks to writer, Dave Armstrong.  This is Rita’s story and the set (aside from the obvious grand piano) is that of a painters studio. 

Sadly, Douglas’s correspondence is unavailable so the challenge lies in creating an equal depiction of their relationship. Instead of Douglas’s words we get his compositions, played masterfully and poignantly by Michael Houstoun. What is contained in the music is what is not said, and you can derive a feel for the man. 

Here is the genius of the play: both artists are represented by the authenticity of their work, and it strikes you how similar (although in different genres) their art is. Both are equally bold, aggressive and confrontational, and at times soft and delicate and poignant.

Beginning with a shared encounter in a coffee shop, they begin their affair when Douglas is 25 and Rita is 32. They become lovers and soon Rita is pregnant which results in a miscarriage. The loss of this child-to-be proves to be something Rita can never recover from. The miscarriage takes its physical toll on Rita as well and she begins a dependence on bromide pills. 

Eventually the pills contribute to the deterioration of Rita’s mental state and she is found wandering the streets of Sumner. She finds herself in a mental hospital undergoing electro-shock therapy.  It is a tragic story of a woman solely passionate about painting whose mental decline is a sad trajectory of devotion to every aspect of her life to her painting. 

Throughout the show we are treated to a very impressive slide show of her paintings alongside a few archive photographs of the woman herself. The choice of static image interjected between episodes of monologue derived from her letters is stunning and masterful. One photograph in particular, of Rita and her husband of three years, is jarring. It shows a miserable Rita overshadowed by a domineering, overly self-assured husband. It works brilliantly against her musings about marriage. 

The polish of the production shines through with exceptional duplications of Rita’s outfits (Nic Smillie), and the set designed all in the cool open white of empty canvas right down to the white square rug on the floor (Paul O’Brien, who also designs the lighting). The technical design overall is wonderfully simple and intimate yet especially effective in creating a theatrical atmosphere from a town hall (AV design by Paul O’Brien, Rob Larsen and Danny Mulholland)

However, for a play about a woman who sacrificed everything in her life for her painting, there is a distinct lack of paint. Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s depiction of Rita pales in comparison to the actual images of a very hard, masculine and intense woman.   She is also a woman slowly coming undone, and this is not very easily believed in an actress who remains presentable, not a hair out of place, undaunted smile, clothes tucked in, buttoned properly, without a spec of paint on her smock.  

Full praise must be given to the interplay between the two performers. Michael Houstoun’s choice of tempo, cadence and dynamic in all the chosen pieces could not be handled more sensitively in concert with Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s voice. This is where the beauty of the play, delivered by these two performers and directed by Conrad Newport, displays true genius.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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