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Theatre legends Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst’s treasure-filled haven

We go behind the scenes to explore an Auckland villa that’s home to two power players in New Zealand theatre

Meet & greet

Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst (both performers and directors), Jennifer’s stepmum Rula and Ruby the cat.

The property

An airy, character-filled three-bedroom villa in the central Auckland suburb of Westmere.

If Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Hurst’s Auckland property was a play, it would entail many acts. Included would be more than two decades’ worth of multi-generational living, spectacular parties and celebrations of significant milestones. The storyline would also have to feature special beginnings – the couple’s two sons, now young adults, were both born here.

For 26 years, the circa-1900 three-bedroom villa in Auckland’s Westmere has remained the couple’s constant while their family has grown and their award-winning acting, singing and directing careers have taken them from stage classics to screen hits and everything in between. They haven’t acted together in the same production in 16 years, but later this year they will both perform in King Lear as part of the Auckland Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary season. Michael, an ONZM and New Zealand Arts Laureate, will play the title role and co-direct the Shakespearean play, while Jennifer – ONZM, CNZM, 2020 New Zealander of the Year and recipient of the title Te Atamira (The Stage) for championing te reo – will play Kent, a male role.

Your Home and Garden caught up with the pair at their long-time family home, a treasure-filled haven that’s also a rehearsal studio, meeting space, office and more.

If ever a house beautifully blurred the lines between private and professional life, this is it.

Opening act

In early 1997, Jennifer and Michael were living in the central-city suburb of Grey Lynn – a place they loved for its local parks, creek and proximity to primary schools – when they spied the villa. Back then, the two-storey timber home with dormer windows was an island in a sea of grass, devoid of the hedge, gardens and trees that now embrace it.

For Jennifer, who describes herself as “an urban kid”, the property needed serious planting to enable the villa to become a part of the earth it inhabited. “It had an ostentatious fence, which we covered with a hedge,” she says. “We’ve gradually anchored the home to the land.”

The villa was deceptive in that from the outside it appeared to be large, but inside it felt much less roomy because it had separate small living and dining rooms, and a room at the front that was all windows and doors. Renovations to open up the poky parts of the house would have to wait, however, because there were more important events in train — Jennifer was heavily pregnant with their first child. “The baby arrived three days after we moved in,” she says. “I was two-and-a-half weeks early, Michael was working… It was crazy.”

She points to a space in the now open-plan living area flowing from the kitchen and dining area. “Jack was born in that room.” Three years later their second son, Cameron, was also born in the house.

The boys, now aged 26 and 23, have since flown the nest, but the house remains home base for family dinners, celebrations and regular get-togethers.

Script changes

Renovations to the house proper took place in two phases. The first commenced in around 2001, and involved pushing out the back of the villa a little to form a new dining space, reconfiguring the kitchen and removing the wall and double chimney separating the living and dining rooms.

The next phase, which took place in 2006, involved creating a third bedroom and a bathroom in the roof space. This new upstairs bedroom is now Michael’s office, filled with intriguing pieces including original lithographs, copies of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear printed in 1709, model Daleks and an Iolaus figurine, a nod to his major role in the popular 1990s television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

It also has views over the trees to the Waitematā Harbour in the distance. “I get up before the sun and watch it rise over the water,” he says.

A similar outlook can be enjoyed from the couple’s light-filled second-storey bedroom, where Ruby the elderly Burmese cat is snuggled up on a sheepskin throw on a chair. Jennifer stops to pat her and talks to her in te reo.

Outside, the once-bare section is now a flora-filled wonderland, and tucked into a corner below the veranda is a swimming pool, perfectly private from the road and neighbours.

Supporting roles

During the early years of the family’s residence, the villa also became a second home to Jennifer’s father Conrad and his wife Rula. Every summer, they’d travel from their Switzerland base and spend about four months with the family. “We got along famously, and they were a tremendous help to us when we had two young kids and two crazy freelance careers,” says Jennifer. “I’m a big fan of multi-generational living. It’s great for children and it has been great for us.”

So in 2010 she and Michael decided to convert their double garage into a self-contained apartment in order to give Jennifer’s dad and stepmum their own space on the property. “My plan was to surprise them with it,” says Jennifer, “but with work and other things, they arrived to a not-quite-finished place.”

Jennifer’s father has since died, but Rula still lives on the property and she and Michael are queen and king of the kitchen.

Scene setting

While successive renovations have made the home more comfortable, it retains its villa feel, thanks to its long central hallway and original features including the timber floorboards, balusters and panels. It’s full of art, memorabilia and special pieces, but the spacious, airy atmosphere created by its many windows and glass doors means it never feels overwhelming.

It doesn’t hurt that the couple have perfectly aligned views on orderliness. “We’re both tidy,” explains Michael.

Jennifer takes it further: “I can’t stand mess for more than two days,” she says. “I’m my father’s daughter and I like things organised.” That’s not to say she likes things too pared back, though. “I’m not a hoarder, but I’m not a minimalist either.” She has trouble nailing down a standout piece or two. “God, I’ve got so many,” she says. “I like all sorts of things from a mixture of eras.” She lists artworks by Ted Dutch, and, in the hallway, a tall carnival glass vase like a tubular bloom growing towards the sky.

Michael’s taste runs to the classical, although over time it has lined up with his wife’s. A piece close to his heart is an artwork by Sara Hughes, who he directed when she was studying drama.

Curtain call

More than quarter of a century after they moved in, the “house of windows and doors”, as Jennifer describes it, still works a treat. The long space created by removing the wall between the small rooms has been host to rehearsals, annual Christmas carol gatherings for 50-plus guests, reunions and significant birthday celebrations. “We have lots of family dinners,” says Michael. “It’s become quite a hub.”

Jennifer foresees a time when they won’t need all the space and they’ll relinquish their home so a new family can enjoy it. But given the villa’s magical ability to accommodate their changing needs over many years, that probably won’t be any time soon.

King Lear is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and runs from 13 June to 1 July at ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland.

Words by: Fiona Barber. Photography by: Babiche Martens

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