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Two short plays:
‘Verbatim’ (William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt)
‘Portraits’ (Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt)
Directed by Jeff Szusterman
Presented by JustSpeak and Last Tapes Theatre Company

at Newtown Community & Cultural Centre, Wellington
From 20 Nov 2013 to 23 Nov 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 21 Nov 2013

Empathy and the lack of it: this is what my thoughts and feeling focus on in the wake of 90 minutes with the perpetrators of violent crimes and those their actions have profoundly affected, channelled by three very fine actors indeed.

Word for word, Verbatim and Portraits share the stories of damaged people, compiled from verbatim transcripts of dozens of interviews with violent offenders, their families, and their victims' families. While the hours of talk have been edited down, the ways their thoughts and feelings have been expressed have not been embellished. The texts distilled for performance provide the human essence for actors to embody.  

The six people profiled in Verbatim – conceived by Miranda Harcourt, researched by herself and William Brandt, written by Brandt and first performed by Harcourt some 20 years ago (multiple times in every prison in New Zealand, and also in prisons in New South Wales and Britain, as well as in various theatre venues) – are now given voice and physical presence by Renee Lyons. Wider social commentary comes from the pre-recorded voices of a radio talk-back host (Oscar Wilson), a caller in to the programme, Steve (Dane Giraud) and retired police officer Barry McLeod (Ken Blackburn). 

Aaron's progress (if that's the word) from joyriding cop-baiter, drug abuser and compulsive burglar to shooting Gail, the stranger who finds him burgling her home, is tragically inevitable. Or is it? Woven within his own narrative are the viewpoints of his sister Danica, his ex de facto wife Sheree, his mother May, Gail's husband Robert and, briefly through a phone call, Gail herself. Each revelation exposes another dimension, altering our perceptions and challenging any trenchant opinion we may have begun to form.

The subtle power of Lyons' less-is-more embodiment of each person brings us to the heart of their experiences, compelling us to interrogate the whys and wherefores and ask ourselves at what point in the causal chain an intervention might have made a positive difference. Aaron is not incapable of empathy but it eludes him at the critical moments he gets to regret. It is he who says the line I have always found the most memorable: “If. That's a very big word.”  

Portraits' Grant Wilson, however, the rapist and murderer of 15 year-old Tracy, seems pathologically incapable of empathy. Self-gratification and self-preservation remain, it seems, his only concern. Like Aaron, his upbringing, or lack of it, seems to have predetermined a negative outcome. The nature v nurture conundrum is as ever-present in both stories, as is the question of what it would take for these offenders to get the concept of personal responsibility.  

Written by Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt, Portraits was also the basis for McKenzie's deeply disturbing film For Good, which premiered some ten years ago (with Harcourt in the role of the victim's mother).

Portraits restricts itself to a text edited from interviews with just four people – Tracy's parents, Donald and Fleur, the offender's ex-wife Mel, and Grant Wilson himself – conducted four years after the rape and murder.

Fraser Brown and Jodie Rimmer draw us into the deeply-felt yet somehow lost-in-emptiness realities of Donald and Fleur's radically changed lives, before Rimmer adds the contrasting ‘voice' of Mel, who manifests her emotional damage and the questions that haunt her in a very different way.

By the time Grant gets to have his say, through Brown, we have a strong need to know why he did what he did. His explanation is chilling. Much can be extrapolated about the fundamental importance of the father /son relationship and the vexing question of exposure to violent videos. Does the fact that rape scenes ‘turned him on' suggest they themselves were the cause or was that the symptom of some deeper flaw? Or did his sociopathic behaviour arise from a neglected emotional need that could have been attended to. Could diagnosing that even lead towards rehabilitation?  

That such questions are what we wrestle with here is a testament to the ego-free nature of the actors. Indeed there is a profound paradox in their ability to empathise with all points of view, even when the person they are personifying is an empathy-free zone. If the ability to empathise is what make humans humane, then actors like this must be the most humane of us all.

Director Jeff Szusterman reveals in the post-show discussion that his job was to work with the actors to pare back the ‘shading' that one is inevitably tempted to bring to the text; to get to the essence of being that allows the words to speak for themselves. And yet there is barely an emotion that is not engaged, by the people in both plays and by us in the audience. Such is the power of empathy.

Given the performance space will make a statement whether we like it or not, the use of a long strip of off-white mattress ticking, running down the middle of the Newtown Community Centre's small auditorium, up over the stage and up the back wall, suggests we have paused – around table and chairs – to engage with these particular stories on a very long (ticking) timeline of human experience. Or it could represent the long road to recovery.

That a decade or two have not aged these texts at all is salutary. This production is playing mostly in theatre venues, although a performance at Arohata Women's prison is imminent and something is afoot for an Auckland Corrections facility. There is another stone-walled institution I'd like to see it played in too, where empathy and self-interest vie for dominance: Parliament House.
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 Nik Smythe
 Matt Baker (TheatreScenes: The Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald online);
 Chris Molloy