Sunday, 21 August 2011

"Rita and Douglas" at the Christchurch Arts Festival

Jennifer Ward-Lealand stars as painter Rita Angus in "Rita And Douglas"

The story of the relationship between painter Rita Angus and composer Douglas Lilburn presented the audience at the Rudolf Steiner School auditorium last night with the delight of seeing the superbly cast Jennifer Ward-Lealand working flawlessly with the effortlessly sophisticated pianist Michael Houston as they balanced beautifully a two handed piece of contemporary NZ theatre. What a treat to see these two on stage together. 

However the enjoyment of watching two extremely talented performers wring the most out of their material was  tempered by writer Dave Armstrong's sole reliance on Lilburn's meandering music to respond to Angus's paintings and her words written in letters to Lilburn.  This meant the audience were unable to gauge the true nature of the relationship at the core of "Rita and Douglas" - was the depth of feeling that Angus had for Lilburn being reciprocated, tolerated or rejected? Without knowing where the writer placed the artist-composer relationship on the continuum that stretches from Angus being the one night stand of twenty years before that kept coming back to haunt Lilburn or the long distance soul mate of an equally introspective and self-obsessed composer the play was difficult to enjoy.

What was easy to enjoy were the superb costumes designed by Nic Smellie that were made by Sheila Horton and Elizabeth Gibbons with the assistance of textile artist James Flynn from the Bowerman School of Design.  With Angus's unflinchingly honest self-portraits creating a vivid picture how we imagine the painter in our mind's eye (like Picasso in his Breton stripes) to see famous ensembles such as what Rita is wearing in her "Self Portrait Smoking" so faithfully recreated was an unexpected delight.

Thanks to the support of the Estate of Rita Angus we were treated to watching a large number of paintings projected behind the performers, at one point the projector wildly bounced around as a 4.0 earthquake rocked the auditorium but neither performer reacted to the 15 second shake in a display of pure professionalism.  The paintings of Rita Angus are always enjoyable to see but the occasional recycling of some landscape images was disconcerting as unless it was a portrait of Angus or Lilburn crucial to the unfolding tale of their relationship there didn't always seem to be a connection between the repeated paintings with the recitation by Ward-Lealand of a particular passage from one Angus's letters.
No-one who appreciates the contribution of Rita Angus to the visual arts of New Zealand or who admires the work of Douglas Lilburn is going to be disappointed by "Rita and Douglas" but perhaps writer Dave Armstrong's affinity and admiration for what he calls "two of this country's greatest artists" meant he created a piece of theatre that an ardent fan would enjoy rather than working the material into a play that despite the richness of subject and talent was just a little too earnest (and even with the enlivening earthquake) a little too soporific as well. 

Favourite part of the play for this reviewer? When Angus writes that there is no way that Lilburn will ever be allowed to buy "Cass" and other of her favourite paintings from her - and that perhaps there will be prints available one day that he could purchase instead!