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.
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.