INTERVIEW: Jennifer Ward-Lealand and the challenges of Rita Angus

Rita Angus Self-Portrait
Rita Angus Self-Portrait

Rita and Douglas and Jennifer [by James Wenley]

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rita Angus
Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rita Angus

Jennifer Ward-Lealand says playing Rita Angus is one of the most challenging roles she has ever performed in her career.

“I’ve never done anything like this before”.

It’s a surprising statement from Jennifer, whom over her long career in the performing arts has played roles as diverse as Boadicea in Xena: Warrior Princess to Marlene Dietrich in cabaret Falling in Love again, and has a huge list of theatre credits to her name.

But in the play Rita and Douglas, Jennifer has found a role to test her. Using the real letters from New Zealand artist Rita Angus to her friend and one-time lover, composer Douglas Lilburn, Jennifer has to bring to life the iconic painter, which she compares to “doing a one woman monologue for 80 minutes.” So, the biggest challenge of her career? “Almost the most, almost”.

Cass Rita Angus
Cass, voted NZ's greatest painting

Rita Angus is a seminal figure in New Zealand art. The Hastings born artist was a pioneering figure in modern art in New Zealand, and created some of our “most memorable and best-loved images” according to Te Papa. Her most famous painting, Cass, which Rita said expressed “joy in living here”, was voted by New Zealanders as our greatest painting.

Rita had a colourful life off the canvas, providing rich potential fodder for a theatrical dramatisation. She’s known for her pacifism, a period of mental illness, and having quite a number of relationships with men. She married one, Alfred Cook, which didn’t last long. She had an affair with Douglas Lilburn (who she called Gordon).

“It’s really easy for someone nowadays to be a full time painter, and not have all those social perceptions on you – you should be a wife and dedicate yourself to raising a family, she wasn’t that type of girl. Obviously she had nice sex with men, you know, but there were views on her about that, which would have been difficult.”

Rita and Douglas is not however a biography of Rita Angus, but concentrates on the relationship (an “artistic meeting of minds” according to Jennifer) between the famous painter and composer. “They obviously had great sex” jokes Jennifer. Although Douglas Lilburn was a gay man, there’s no evidence that Rita knew this.  

Douglas was one of Rita’s greatest supporters, “even though she was a total pain in the ass”.

 “He supported her artistically; he paid for her to go to Otago where she painted some of her most amazing work. He gave her 30 pounds and said go where you will, paint as you feel inclined. He got her. She says in one of her letters ‘I felt you saw what I saw without words’. When someone reacted to her work it was so incredibly potent and powerful for her, when someone else feels that way, boy, you loved it. It wasn’t easy at times for sure, it was very intense, and there were times where she really spurned him and pretty well turned around and said I’m sorry for saying that, please start writing again. But he stuck by her.”

Douglas kept all the letters Rita wrote to him over their years of friendship, and bequeathed them to the Alexander Turnbull library, providing a rich source for adapter and playwright Dave Armstrong. With a vast amount of material, the play focuses on the relationship and its drama, sometimes pulling different letters from the same period of her life into one. “The show has an arch to it that makes it satisfying. She starts at a point, goes through stuff, ends at a point.”

Jennifer says the letters are at times incredibly sad, and incredibly mad. “If she wasn’t such an interesting writer I don’t think the show would be half of what it is – she has some incredible turns of phrase, she says some incredible things, she’s incredibly open at times, she’s vitriolic”. She likens Rita’s letters to the same way people write emails today and don’t think about blatting off.  

What struck Jennifer the most reading the letters was the “the incredible pain of losing her child [with Douglas], which stuck with her all her life.”

While Armstrong had Rita’s letters to work with in shaping the play, he had none of Douglas responses – Rita’s family destroyed all of Douglas letters to her. Jennifer suspects this was because the family thought her reputation would be tarnished – “I think they thought it would look bad, she would like she’d slept around a bit”.

The solution was to have the music of Douglas Lilburn act as his answer.  Onstage this is played by Michael Houstoun, one of New Zealand’s foremost concert pianists. She’s known Michael (who she describes as being “completely divine to be onstage with”) since they were teenagers but this is the first time properly working together.  “It’s a real partnership – we never connect visually, but man we connect emotionally all the time. I just feel so lucky to have someone of his caliber”.

Rita Angus Self-Portrait
Rita Angus Self-Portrait

Jennifer sees the Rita and Douglas as a “beautiful marriage of art, music and words”. Images, including high-resolution pictures of Rita’s art are projected throughout the play, “although I’m yet to see most of them because I can never turn around and look at them”.

For Jennifer, one of the hardest things about the play is to turn the letters, something that is meant to be read, into “an alive an immediate thing”. Each letter has its own mood, she explains, and mood determines the actress’ physicality. “When she’s raging, man, I’m all over the place. When she’s vulnerable and small it’s very still. It’s all letter dependent.”

Without any footage or recordings of Rita, all Jennifer initially had to work with are the words on the page and the director. An unexpected discovery however was the added influence of Douglas’ music. “The music informs everything I do… every rhythm in it, every mood change in it, I use. Even if the audience doesn’t know it, I know it. So that’s all part of this rhythm that we’ve found now.”

The acting challenge for Jennifer is being absolutely in the here and now when doing the show:

“If you even think ahead to what another letter is going to be, you absolutely do your head in. There are about 23 of them. You’ve just got to deal with one at a time, and each different feeling. And you absolutely have to go into these feelings, fully and hugely… and then it might be something else in the next letter. So energetically, and emotionally, I’m in many different places. And I love that, to me that is just heaven as an actor. You plunge into that awful feeling, you plunge into that wonderful feeling… then you’re out and onto something else.”

Its roles like these that keep Jennifer’s passion alive. “If it stopped being a challenge I wouldn’t do it. I’m looking for challenges all the time. I think any actor is; you want to be stretched.”

In connecting with the role of Rita, Jennifer wishes in some ways that she lived today – “she would have had so much freedom to be who she wanted to be”.

Douglas Lilburn has a famous quote about the “predicament of being a creative artist in a small remote country without real tradition – this is an intangible oppression.” Jennifer feels that the work of the time wasn’t oppressed, but perhaps the society was oppressive. “People didn’t get Rita’s work at times, for sure. She was really undone by the critics at certain times, really undone”. After some criticism about her landscapes at an exhibition she became “hunkered down and even more reclusive… I think she was deeply, deeply hurt”.

Jennifer herself takes a far more optimistic view than Douglas about the “intangible oppression” today. “I think it’s the opposite. Nobody’s telling you what to do, you can invent yourself. And I think that’s a freedom that New Zealand artists and performers in all branches of the arts, because you’re not being pigeon-holed into anything. Nobody’s saying you’re doing the school of this or the style of that, you do what you feel. I think that’s why there are so many talented people in NZ because of that”

 “People are doing fantastic work in this country, everywhere in the arts”. She acknowledges that the size of New Zealand population makes it difficult for us, and there probably isn’t the money for people to flourish in some cases as much as they should.

“And I don’t think it will ever stop people making theatre or making art, whether there’s money or not, you just do it because you have to do it. People have to write, people have to act, people have to paint, people have to make music… that will just go on, it won’t ever stop; it just gets tough for people. But I think it will always be tough for people.”

Having done short seasons of the plays throughout New Zealand this year, Jennifer thinks the play is in a “beautiful spot” and has really found its place now. “It feels like it’s not so frightening all the time”.

She says they’ve had all sorts of people attend the show.  

“I don’t think it matters if you don’t know anything about her, because you will at the end. I don’t think it matters if you’ve never heard Douglas Lilburn music, because you will and you’ll love it. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the art, because it’s essentially a story of these two people at a certain time… we’re concentrating on one of the most profound times of her life, how she responded, how he responded, that’s were the drama is”.

“I just think it’s really interesting, it’s the type of show I’d like to see – I wish I could see it!”

While preparing to play Rita in Auckland, Jennifer is currently getting attention in a very different type of role – Wanda the cougar Real Estate Agent on online comedy series Auckland Daze. Each new episode is shot on weekends, and she says there’s some really great stuff coming up for her character. “I’m really enjoying it. When the director calls cut we all just fall about laughing”. On the show, she’s Mum to ‘player’ Millen, and Wanda is very much part of his life – in Episode 2 she even came along to one of his dates.

“I’ve been offered a few cougar type roles and in the last few years, and all of them had an icky factor about them. And I thought if you’re going to do a role like that, how great that it’s funny.”

Rita and Douglas is presented by Armstrong Creative and STAMP at THE EDGE, directed by Conrad Newport, and adapted from the letters of Rita Angus by Dave Armstrong.

It plays at the Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall from  22nd until 26th November.

More information about the at THE EDGE.

More information about Jennifer Ward-Lealand at

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