Play explores an odd couple

LOVELY RITA: Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Wellington artist Rita Angus in Rita and Douglas.
LOVELY RITA: Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Wellington artist Rita Angus in Rita and Douglas.

More than 30 years ago popular playwright and screenwriter Dave Armstrong was immersed in another creative outlet: the trumpet.

Armstrong, who writes a weekly column for The Dominion Post, was studying classical music and composition at Victoria University. One of Armstrong's lecturers was composer Douglas Lilburn, then in his mid-60s.

"A colleague of mine discovered a piece that was composed [by Lilburn] in 1962. In 1980 it had never been played. It was for brass quartet. I thought 'why have I never heard of it?'," says Armstrong.

Lilburn explained to his students that he had given the piece to New Zealand Symphony Orchestra players in 1962 and they said it was unplayable, so he put it in a bottom drawer.

"He didn't think to ask anyone else, so we got him to get it out of the bottom drawer and we played it – and it was totally playable."

Soon after, the young Armstrong played trumpet for the world premiere of Lilburn's Quartet for Brass Instruments. He says he got to know Lilburn enough that he could greet him on Wellington's streets or around campus. "But he didn't go to concerts as he got older. He had really bad tinnitus and he tended to be a bit of a recluse. [But] a tremendously kind, nice person."

Armstrong's connection to Lilburn, who died in 2001, could have remained a series of warm memories and a footnote in the composer's career. But instead Armstrong has brought something of Lilburn, and his music, back to life in Rita and Douglas, opening in Wellington tomorrow.

The play, which premiered three years ago at the Festival of Colour in Wanaka, focuses on the relationship and friendship between Lilburn and artist Rita Angus. It's based on letters Angus wrote to Lilburn after they first met in Wellington in 1941.

Armstrong says there are no corresponding letters that Lilburn wrote to Angus. They were either lost or destroyed after she died in 1970, he says.

"In a way it's like a mystery you have to solve in the play because you are only getting one side of the story, verbally. But you are getting Lilburn's responses through [his] music."

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, who performed in the New Zealand Festival's Brel in Wellington last month, plays Angus. Acclaimed pianist Michael Houstoun performs Lilburn's music.

Armstrong says Houstoun, who will perform in the Edinburgh International Festival this year, does not act or play a part. "But he's not an accompanist, he's a star. He gets to really shine on this."

Houstoun has worked with theatre productions before. When first approached about Rita and Douglas, Armstrong says the pianist liked the concept.

Houstoun had already recorded two of Lilburn's major works. "But what I'm so proud of with this play is that it caused him to go back and look at all of Lilburn's output. Lilburn wrote four or five hours of piano music. Michael recorded a CD last year that had a lot of pieces from Rita and Douglas in it and it won best classical album in the New Zealand Music Awards," says Armstrong.

"One thing we've had about this show is that people go 'oh we love Rita. It's such a great story and she had such a difficult life in some ways, and we love her paintings. But we didn't realise how wonderful Douglas Lilburn's music is.'

"If this show has helped realise that he is our greatest classical composer of the 20th century, then it has done its job. People think of modern New Zealand classical music as sometimes inaccessible and yet it's not. Lilburn's, some of them written in the 1940s, sound beautiful."

Unlike Lilburn, Armstrong knew very little about Angus. But he began researching her life after a suggestion from Wellington film-maker Gaylene Preston, who had made a documentary about the artist. Preston pointed to the letters Angus had written to Lilburn.

"As far as most people were concerned Rita was celibate and Douglas was gay," says Armstrong. But Angus and Lilburn began their lifelong friendship as lovers. Angus became pregnant but had a miscarriage. In the biography Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music, author Philip Norman notes that not long after the miscarriage Lilburn composed Allegro for strings. Angus later suggested that "the soul of the child" was living in the music.

Armstrong is aware of the speculation about the consequences of the miscarriage. He says Lilburn may not have viewed his music in the same way, but believes that the miscarriage had a big impact on Angus' life and may have contributed to her nervous breakdown in 1948. She later fully recovered and Lilburn was part of the healing process, says Armstrong.

"By the 1950s she seems to have come to terms with things."

During the play more than 100 images are projected, including Angus' paintings and sketches, along with photographs of Angus and Lilburn.

Some of the photos and paintings were used as the basis for costume designs for Ward-Lealand, including one of a smiling Angus taking a break during a walk in 1940 on Christchurch's Port Hills.

Lilburn composed a piece called From the Port Hills, so Armstrong says it all meets in his play. The photograph of Angus, Ward-Lealand dressed as Angus in the photograph, and Houstoun playing From the Port Hills.

The play has also been staged in Taranaki, Nelson, Tauranga, Auckland and Christchurch. Armstrong says the Christchurch season was in a venue at the foot of the Port Hills. "As we got to the picture of the Port Hills there was an earthquake. We laughed afterwards and said 'that's Rita and Douglas. They're watching.' "

Armstrong's best known plays, including Le Sud, The Motor Camp and Kings of the Gym are comedies, but he doesn't see Rita and Douglas as switching gears.

"The change of gear is in the minds of others, not mine. They say 'Armstrong, he writes raucous, broad comedies and now he's written something artistic'.

"I'd argue that everything I write I try to write as artistically as possible. It's just another part of me I suppose. What has surprised me is [Rita and Douglas] has appealed to the box office. When we started it I said 'look, this will be great to do, and it's a dream come true with the team we've assembled. But don't expect hundreds of people to go'.

"We did a season in Auckland and sold out. I think people underestimated how popular Rita Angus is in New Zealand."


Rita and Douglas, Circa One, Wellington, tomorrow until April 12.

The Dominion Post