It looked like a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame on the stage of The Street Theatre. Two garbage bins and a cute looking bucket between them. But they were full of water, like all the theatre spotlights, the carpets, the seats. Ceilings collapsed, one near the lower theatre door while the insurance assessor was standing close by.
This was the result of the storm on February 27. Almost endgame for The Street, one might think, considering the cost of repairs, replacement of all those stage lights, relocating shows to other venues and loss of income from cancelled or postponed shows.
But the show goes on, starting this Friday with Auckland-based Jennifer Ward-Lealand, so revered in New Zealand that on April 4, we can reveal, she will receive an ONZM for her services to theatre. Falling in Love Again is a tribute to the strength of character of the German cabaret singer, Marlene Dietrich, who “had the guts,” says Ward-Lealand, “to turn her back on her own country”.
Since her youth theatre days some 30 years ago, Ward-Lealand has been rewarded with critical accolades. As Agnes in Agnes of God (1985) she was “an electrifying combination of distracted guilt and vengeful rage.” Her portrayal of Hedda Gabler (1986) captured “the audience’s undivided attention from the very first time she walks on stage.” In 2005, as Stevie in The Goat, she was “formidable”, and of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2006, the NZ Herald critic wrote “The delicate interactions between Viola and Olivia produces some wonderfully poignant moments, notably when Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s magisterial countess dissolves into a lovestruck teenager as she is captivated by the overpowering sweetness of Viola.”
For all these years Ward-Lealand has been more than a stalwart entertainer. As she has found in researching Marlene Dietrich, theatre can change how one sees the world, not only for the audience but for the practitioner. In 2002 she was approached to play the part of Dietrich in a play Marlene by British author Pam Gems, who has also written about Edith Piaf. Despite her musical family background, Ward-Lealand was hesitant about taking the role, which included six Dietrich songs.
But when a friend, a specialist in European cabaret, gave her documents and recordings, she found herself becoming fascinated, especially by Dietrich’s role in World War 2 on the Allied side, persuading German troops through her cabaret songs to reject the Nazi government in favour of democracy. Dietrich could, of course, have stayed in Germany and become equally famous and perhaps richer supporting her country’s war effort.
What was it, I asked Ward-Lealand, that made Dietrich reject her strict conservative upbringing, and in the USA become a focus for displaced German Jews? Theatre cabaret was the answer. Through the 1920s and 1930s the cabaret was an open society, more European than national, a swinging lifestyle, and particularly for Dietrich a place where she associated personally with Jewish people. She found in herself a “deep sense of outrage that she couldn’t easily run away from” at their treatment.
And, though Ward-Lealand has not been placed in such a testing situation, she too has found the theatre to be a “tolerant industry, where really nothing is shocking”. In her career she feels she has been very fortunate to have played such an array of characters from Polly Peachum in Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, Janet in The New Rocky Horror Show and Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein to Anna in Old Times by Harold Pinter, the Young Girl in Yerma by Garcia Lorca and many, many others. The key, she says, is the experience of taking these roles with directors you can respect, so that you learn to extend your understanding of the characters and change your own understanding of the world.
So when she performs in the role of Marlene Dietrich in Falling in Love Again, we will not see a singer imitating Dietrich. Through 23 songs, including some Cole Porter, Piaf and others, we will become engaged in that gutsy character, created for us by Jennifer Ward-Lealand as much as a celebration of Dietrich’s contribution as an entertainment. “I take my work very seriously” says Ward-Lealand, on stage and in Auckland theatre, film and television management boards.
One special program she has established is the Theatre Patrons program, which she says ten years ago she would not have had the guts to do. The audiences need to “own” their theatre, and, I am sure, they are now thanking her with the honour of an ONZM. “Like an OBE,” she explains, “but like you in Australia we have grown up now and have our own honours.” And, I sense, it is growing up that she has done since those youth theatre days, and Marlene Dietrich did through her theatre cabaret experience. We will see the mature performance on Friday night.
Falling in Love Again
Jennifer Ward-Lealand, with Grant Winterburn and Aaron Coddel
The Street Theatre Stage 1
Saturday March 30, 8.30pm
Bookings: 6247 1223
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