Her bril­liant ca­reer

Ac­tress El­iz­a­beth Hawthorne is pre­par­ing for one of her big­gest chal­lenges yet – play­ing a Jewish peo­ple hunter in ca­hoots with the Nazis.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Diana Wich­tel

El­iz­a­beth Hawthorne is pre­par­ing for one of her big­gest chal­lenges yet – play­ing a Jewish peo­ple hunter in ca­hoots with the Nazis.

The life of the long-dis­tance ac­tress in a small prov­ince. El­iz­a­beth Hawthorne, ONZM, has lent her win­try beauty and I-have-no-time-for-your­shit aura to a range of fraught di­vas, from a mem­o­rable out­ing as opera leg­end Maria Cal­las on stage to Ngaire West on TV’s Out­ra­geous Fortune. Her PR trout on satir­i­cal com­edy show Spin Doc­tors did a de­fin­i­tive drunk im­per­son­ation of He­len Clark. She did Short­land Street. Her list of theatre per­for­mances, go­ing back to the early 1970s, is so long that bios have been forced to re­sort to “nu­mer­ous”. Her cur­rent scen­esteal­ing as a slightly misog­y­nis­tic trope – boozy, nud­ist, sex­u­ally vo­ra­cious Aun­tie Nancy – has been one of too few rea­sons to watch TVNZ 2’s Filthy Rich.

The day we chat, Hawthorne, in jeans and a scarf against the cold, is em­body­ing all the glam­our of a life on the boards in a bleak re­hearsal room at Auck­land’s Unitec. Two chairs in search of char­ac­ters are set up at a wary an­gle to each other in the mid­dle of the room. The en­tire cast of new show Blonde Poi­son is as­sem­bled: Hawthorne.

In a ca­reer that be­gan at Auck­land’s leg­endary Theatre Cor­po­rate when she was 22, she has never done a solo show. How­ever, has she avoided it? Hawthorne has a laugh that must have rat­tled the seats in a few theatre back rows over the years. “But re­ally it isn’t [a solo show],” she in­sists, re­fram­ing what might, even to a trouper of her stature, seem a daunt­ing prospect. “There’s Paul, for a start. He’s an­chor­ing me to the script, to the story. There are all these char­ac­ters. They’re all in there in their life and di­men­sion and their char­ac­ter and their edge. It’s far from one per­son.”

Ac­tu­ally, it’s a one-woman show. “El­iz­a­beth is be­ing in­cred­i­bly brave tak­ing this piece on,” says Paul Git­tins, who is di­rect­ing. “You’re up there and you’re on your own. I won’t be there to give you any an­chors.” In an­other first, Blonde Poi­son is the in­au­gu­ral out­ing of new theatre com­pany Plumb Pro­duc­tions, founded by Git­tins and ac­tor David As­ton. It aims, says the pub­lic­ity, at “qual­ity, in­ti­mate drama that plumbs the depths”.

Blonde Poi­son, by South African play­wright and UK res­i­dent Gail Louw, would fit the bill. Her spare, con­fronting play is based on the life of Stella Gold­schlag, a beau­ti­ful Ger­man Jewish woman who be­comes a greifer – a catcher – hunt­ing other Jews, known as “U-Boats”, who were try­ing to survive liv­ing un­der the radar in Berlin dur­ing World War II. Stella is re­cruited when she is caught, tortured by the Gestapo and promised a chance to save her par­ents and her­self from de­por­ta­tion. She is also, we slowly see, mon­strous. The real-life Stella is cred­ited with hand­ing over up to 3000 men, women and chil­dren to the Nazis.

Stella was 17 when the war started. Does Hawthorne feel for her? “Ab­so­lutely.” Was she a mon­ster? “I can’t feel that. What I’ve been think­ing of is, ‘What would I have done?’ Would I have had the courage to say, ‘No, I won’t do this’?” When Stella claims, “I am a vic­tim of Nazism, too”, there’s truth in that. She was op­er­at­ing in a world gone mad. “She was bro­ken down, she was tortured. They dis­so­ci­ate you, they take your per­son­al­ity from you. I am not ex­cus­ing her in any way, but you’re not the same af­ter that. You never are.”

Stella, how­ever, took to her job with con­sid­er­ably more en­thu­si­asm, even af­ter her par­ents were de­ported, than was strictly nec­es­sary. “Yes, she took to it with alacrity. She says, ‘I was the queen, I was the boss.’ She talks about the spark that lit her heart when she found some­one and pounced on them.”

I get a pre­view of that blonde poi­son as the ex­pres­sion in Hawthorne’s eyes hard­ens and she drops into a cred­itable Ger­man ac­cent. “I wanted to be this smart woman, this strong woman. I wanted to walk with a re­volver in my bag. I wanted the money they gave me for ev­ery per­son I de­liv­ered. I wanted those lit­tle trin­kets I took.” Hawthorne in char­ac­ter can be quite chill­ing up close.

Git­tins shows me a pho­to­graph. Stella’s daugh­ter. The one she gave up? “She didn’t give her up,” says Git­tins. “She had her ripped out of her arms.” He’s be­come a lit­tle pro­tec­tive of the char­ac­ter.

If there is life af­ter such cir­cum­stances, for Stella it doesn’t amount to much. Af­ter the war, she’s re­viled, im­pris­oned. She re­mains vain, in de­nial. The set’s se­cond chair awaits a child­hood friend, a jour­nal­ist who is com­ing to in­ter­view Stella. She frets over when to put on the cof­fee, re­hearses ex­plain­ing her­self: “Three thou­sand, you’ll say. They lie be­cause I am beau­ti­ful.” Stella is also an ac­tress.

“She was taught that she was the princess, lit­tle Pünk­tchen. She was adored,” says Hawthorne. “You add this to her, shall we say, tinge of nar­cis­sism and you’re go­ing to have a par­tic­u­lar re­ac­tion.” In the fore­word, Louw writes of the au­di­ence, “I can­not sup­press a sense that I want their fore­most re­ac­tion to be one of vil­i­fi­ca­tion to­wards her.” Yet au­di­ences have spo­ken of feel­ing em­pa­thy for a woman tested in ways it’s hard to imag­ine. “Bags not choose,” says Hawthorne. “Bags not have to choose.”

Such roles can be rare for ac­tresses of a cer­tain age, though Hawthorne hasn’t seemed short of work. “I don’t think so,” she says, when I ask if she has en­coun­tered much sex­ism. “I’m not quite sure what it would mean, but I don’t think

I’ve had it,” she de­cides, as if she’s talk­ing about a case of measles.

The sit­u­a­tion she re­calls when she left schoolteach­ing to join Theatre Cor­po­rate sounds fairly eq­ui­table: ev­ery­body of any gen­der worked like dogs. “We had to do the cleaning. We did the dun­nies and the pack in and pack out. It was like be­ing in a monastery. It was de­vo­tion be­cause, for me, my life to that date was sorely lack­ing in mostly ev­ery­thing. But the theatre …,” sighs Hawthorne. “It was your fam­ily, re­ally,” says Git­tins. In Hawthorne’s case, quite lit­er­ally. Her ex-hus­band is for­mer di­rec­tor of Theatre Cor­po­rate, Ray­mond Hawthorne. She pur­sued her vo­ca­tion while bring­ing up two daugh­ters.

I can still re­mem­ber her turn at Auck­land’s old Mer­cury Theatre as Blanche

“I wanted to walk with a re­volver in my bag. I wanted the money they gave me for ev­ery per­son I de­liv­ered.”

DuBois in A Street­car Named De­sire: fierce, frag­ile, doomed. Our chat gets de­railed as she and Git­tins try to re­call the year – even the decade – they worked to­gether in that.

Git­tins: “I played Mitch and Mike Mizrahi was Stan­ley Kowal­ski, wasn’t he?”

Hawthorne: “Sarah Peirse was Stella. 1997. No, 95. 80!” Git­tins: “Don’t ask me.” They set­tle on 1987. Wikipedia agrees Street­car was one of 13 Mer­cury pro­duc­tions that year, which also in­cluded The Sound of Mu­sic, Oedi­pus

Rex and Ladies’ Night.

An hour with Hawthorne isn’t so much an in­ter­view as a ride. One minute it’s a rol­lick­ing so­lil­o­quy on in­spi­ra­tional older ac­tresses: “Well, Meryl Streep. He­len Mir­ren, she’s our god­dess, isn’t she? Judi Dench: hel­losie! All those Bri­tish ac­tresses, the ones that Mike Leigh uses, and Ken Loach. Those gutsy, bloody gor­geous women.” The next it’s a pithy com­ment on the state of much main­stream tele­vi­sion: “It’s shite.”

She can be ret­i­cent. “Don’t put that in the hoo-ha,” she says, sotto voce, if talk strays too far into pri­vate ter­ri­tory. Though her way into the dis­tress­ing world of Blonde Poi­son was highly per­sonal. Her par­ents were in the forces dur­ing World War II. Her father never spoke about his ex­pe­ri­ences. “I never asked the ques­tions and now I’ll never know. It wasn’t dis­cussed. Or he’d make a joke of it. Vera Lynn – he would just cry.” There was a green tin full of photos. “Late in his life – and I re­gret this – he was go­ing through the box and he said, ‘You should come around more of­ten and I’ll tell you more about it. The guy who gave me this box, I had to step over his body. He was shot dead on the beach.’ I don’t know what that feels like. I could never imag­ine my­self into that.”

The unimag­in­able. There has been a re­quest be­fore the in­ter­view that we don’t talk about the tragic death last year of Hawthorne’s daugh­ter, the ac­claimed ac­tress Sophia Hawthorne. We do talk about the ways in which, when you are deal­ing with some­thing shat­ter­ing in life, you can find your­self hy­per aware of oth­ers’ sit­u­a­tions. “What’s been com­ing at me is peo­ple’s dev­as­ta­tion. I might hap­pen to have the ra­dio in the car on and you hear of a woman who goes for a run at Piha. She’s never seen again. What about her fam­ily? This dev­as­ta­tion. Whether it’s be­cause I’m more sen­si­tised to it, it’s just ev­ery­where. Then you have a build­ing in London burn­ing, peo­ple burn­ing in­side it. Burn­ing. So one’s own per­sonal dev­as­ta­tion – there’s nowhere I can find to put it or to un­der­stand it or com­pre­hend it or to em­brace it, re­ally. But I am not the only one.”

The topic is ad­dressed obliquely and valiantly. “There’s a lot of an­guish. I don’t do the Face­book-y, Twitty thing. I can hardly get up in the morn­ing and just get through a day with what we all carry our­selves, let alone all that.”

She is, she says, tremen­dously for­tu­nate. She teaches drama stu­dents at Unitec. There’s act­ing: stage, tele­vi­sion and a film, Adrift, she’s work­ing on with Ever­est di­rec­tor Bal­tasar Kor­mákur, who de­mands more nat­u­ral­ism, less diva. “He’s just bring­ing me down, down, down, which is won­der­ful,” she says. “So, work. It’s al­ways been my base. It’s very im­por­tant to me, so I just hope it keeps go­ing.”

She’s had lean times. Sal­va­tion once came in the form of Short­land Street, where she honed her death stare as clinic man­ager Ju­lia. “That was the mar­vel­lous gift from heaven for me. Talk about learn­ing on the job. I’d only ever done theatre. It taught me ev­ery­thing about cam­era and com­ing know­ing your stuff, not that I al­ways did. But keep it rolling. Keep it mov­ing. Keep it go­ing.”

Keep it rolling: it’s not a bad sum­ma­tion of her ca­reer mo­men­tum so far. As for what she might like to do in the fu­ture, she’s not fussy. “Any­thing that comes,” she says. “I love work­ing. And I feel as I age it’s even more im­por­tant, my work, than it’s ever been. Just to keep ex­pand­ing and try­ing harder.”

She seems to have no trou­ble find­ing roles at the mo­ment. “No, I don’t,” she says, look­ing gen­uinely per­plexed. “I won­der why they do keep putting me in things.” Pos­si­bly be­cause, though she’s un­fash­ion­ably cir­cum­spect about it, she’s a star.

But there’s al­ways more to learn. Stand­ing in the mer­ci­less spotlight of Blonde Poi­son, she’s once again rein­ing in her nat­u­ral the­atri­cal­ity. “I do have to watch that. The hi­lar­i­ous thing is that I am telling my stu­dents all the things that I am try­ing to do my­self. It never stops,” she says hap­pily. “Paul’s been mar­vel­lous. He’s say­ing, ‘No, you don’t need that. You don’t need to demon­strate.’” Just keep it mov­ing, keep it rolling. “The story’s there. Just stay in the story. The story’s enough.”

Blonde Poi­son, Auck­land: Her­ald Theatre, Au­gust 22-Septem­ber 2. Whangarei: OneOneSix, Oc­to­ber 12-14.

As Stella Gold­schlag in Blonde Poi­son.

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