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Rima Te Wiata. Photo/Getty Images & Supplied

Why comedy star Rima Te Wiata is deadly serious about acting

Ahead of her return to the stage in a new production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rima Te Wiata talks to Linda Herrick about her craft.

The greatest challenge for any actor is to assume another identity so convincingly that the audience can accept, momentarily, they are someone else.

Give that actor an Oscar. But one of the lead characters – The Player, who is also an actor – in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead reckons actors are always special anyway. “We are actors! We’re the opposite of people.”

Rima Te Wiata, rehearsing the role of The Player in the Auckland Theatre Company production of the 1966 classic, makes a case that, like any artist, actors simply want to be taken seriously. And when it comes to acting, she is very serious indeed.

She accepted long ago that when she takes on a role, she becomes transformed. “Even though I’m silly and funny, when I get down to work I’m really intense and really obsessive, and I like to be left alone with it,” she says. “I’ve said to friends before that I don’t think there’s any such thing as being a master of the arts. There is really only the art mastering you.”

To mark the relationship, she had the word “mastery” tattooed in Cyrillic script along the side of one hand. It reminds her, she says, that “you are always humble and you can join together with it as a force in itself without needing anyone else to be there”.

“I am extremely selfish when I’m in a show,” she adds. “In any breaks, I don’t really talk to other people. I don’t want a lot of contact. It’s not just, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to learn this.’ You’ve got to get into the forest of it and see all the clearings. When you stop, it’s like, ‘I haven’t had a drink of water for three hours,’ so you have gone somewhere else.”

Auckland-based Te Wiata, 56, has been on stage for nearly 40 years, making her professional debut at 17 in the 1980 Mercury Theatre production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

That Te Wiata is one of our most formidable contemporary stage performers was proven again in last year’s season of Hir at the Silo Theatre in Auckland. In New York playwright Taylor Mac’s drama of a broken home, Te Wiata’s matriarch, Mommy Paige, rode a line between dangerous nastiness and deep empathy in a powerhouse performance that left the audience gasping.

In recent years, her screen career has largely been a run of occasionally scene-stealing maternal figures – in TV3 sitcom Golden Boy as well as the movies Housebound, The Breaker Upperers and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Her turn as foster mum Bella in Taika Waititi’s hit film gave her a rare chance, with her improvised Ricky Baker Birthday Song, to display her musical talents, which, in 1993, had led to a one-off jazz album.

That record was the result of her profile from appearances in 1980s and 1990s sketch shows and memorable impersonations of Judy Bailey and Helen Clark, a period Te Wiata revisited on recent comedy documentary series Funny As.

She will bring her comedy talents to bear in R&G, a play that is wide open to interpretation and contains a head-swimming number of puns.

“It is known as a comedy, but sometimes it goes too dark as well,” she says. “It can get a bit fruitcake-y. You can still go down a nightmare path but it depends whether you’re going to stay there the whole time or lift yourself out. What he [Stoppard] wanted was at least some exploration into the comedic side of it, and that’s where we are going.”

R&G is an inversion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with its fringe characters brought to the fore while the tragedy’s major players emerge as occasional, ineffectual figures. As in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are courtiers, unwitting accessories to their written, immutable fate. They look to The Player for guidance through the hall of mirrors they find themselves in, but she’s not necessarily on their side.

“I would say The Player is a provocateur, a bit of a trickster, a little bit cunning because The Player knows their history and they don’t,” she says. “If you understand that the play is existential and abstract, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know Hamlet. All that matters is that you are lost with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And, if you do know Hamlet, then you can see things from The Player’s perspective. Those two characters are relying on this character and the decadent, seedy troupe of players wandering this strange world.”

Stoppard – who was just 29 when he wrote the play – was emphatic when asked what R&G was “about” when it opened in New York a couple of years later: “It’s about to make me rich,” he responded. The playwright hoped to further that ambition when he adapted the script for the film version he directed in 1990, starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern and Richard Dreyfuss as The Player, but it was an effort largely dismissed by reviewers for not having escaped its stage origins.

“With all due respect to Tom Stoppard, I don’t think the play is suitable for film, and I still think that, back then, it was not irreverent enough,” Te Wiata says. “Stoppard’s complaint was that other companies had considered it too reverently. This play,” she says with great emphasis, “is going to be a lot more silly and crazy.”

Her parents, Inia and Beryl Te Wiata, in London in the 60s. Photo/Supplied
The cast, directed by experimental-theatre darling Benjamin Henson, is a mix of newcomers, including Tom Clarke as Rosencrantz, Freya Finch as Guildenstern and Joe Witkowski as Hamlet, and seasoned artists such as Lisa Chappell as Gertrude, Bruce Phillips as Polonius and Simon Prast as the villain, Claudius.

Te Wiata would seem to be in good company among her fellow veterans. Her career means it’s been a lonely life at times for the only child of opera star and master-carver Inia Te Wiata, who died when she was eight, and actor-writer Beryl Te Wiata, who died two years ago.

“Yeah, that’s the gypsy existence,” she says. “That’s why I decided not to have children. I decided to give my life – give my life,” she repeats with a flourish – “to this craft. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t, other times, I’m really pleased I did. I basically married it. It hasn’t let me down like perhaps it might have if I’d decided on a human partner,” she adds, very archly.

Well, I venture carelessly, she’s been lucky to have had such a full career. A raised eyebrow is the deserved response. The Player is a bit cross.

“You could say lucky, but that makes it sound as though it’s all just luck. But it isn’t. A lot of it is dedication and surrendering,” she says.

“I’ve got no security because I’ve got to go and do this play or that play and now I’m going to Australia and so I’m cut off from everybody – just all that.

“It’s a roller coaster and you can get sick of it as you get older and wish that more would happen in your vicinity. But so much of it does move around and in some ways the instability is part and parcel of the job. You have to pull the rug out sometimes and I think the art does that for you.”

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, ASB Waterfront Theatre, September 11-26.

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.