Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

12/11/2013 - 16/11/2013

Newtown Community & Cultural Centre, Wellington

20/11/2013 - 23/11/2013

Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland

25/11/2013 - 27/11/2013

Production Details

Directed by Jeff Szusterman

Presented by Last Tapes Theatre Company and JustSpeak

“Picking up this work for the first time felt like we were approaching something vital and seminal in the history of New Zealand theatre. Reading it for the first time hit us dead-on with the visceral and raw impact of these works. These are stories about broken lives, and a broken system. Instantly we knew that these are stories that need to be heard again and again if we have any hope of understanding the issues behind them.”

Last Tapes Theatre Company and JustSpeak are proud to present VERBATIM – two short plays that allow some of New Zealand’s most marginalised voices to tell their own stories, in their own words.

‘Verbatim’ (William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt) and ‘Portraits’ (Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt) were developed through interviews with violent offenders, their families, and their victims’ families. The plays are a form of docu-drama, where the truth cannot be hidden because the words are not embellished.

Hear from New Zealand’s prisoners, their families at home, and their victims’ families, all struggling to come to terms with their realities. See the damage, hurt, loss, and reconciliation.

Originally written to be performed in prisons, for prisoners, ‘Verbatim’ tells the story of a home invasion ending in murder. It explores the impact of this event on the families of both victim and offender, and on the offender himself, giving unique insight into often over-looked lives and backgrounds. Performed by Miranda Harcourt as a one-woman show around New Zealand prisons in the early 1990s, this production brings the work to new audiences and challenges us to consider whether anything has changed in the 20 years since the work’s genesis.

‘Portraits’ tells the true story of the rape and murder of a young schoolgirl through the eyes of her parents, the offender, and his estranged ex-wife. Brutally honest and confronting, this work resounds with loss, and challenges us to ask how this could happen, and how anyone could recover from such an event.

These remarkable works are being brought to the stage in 2013 through a collaboration between justice reform group JustSpeak and Last Tapes Theatre Company.

An incredible cast of New Zealand industry leaders embody multiple characters to paint a picture of violent crime and its endless repercussions.

Renee Lyons, hot on the heels of the successful international tour of her onewoman show ‘Nick: An Accidental Hero’, features as the solo performer in ‘Verbatim’.

Screen favourites Jodie Rimmer (Until Proven Innocent, In My Father’s Den) and Fraser Brown (Harry, and the upcoming Field Punishment No.1) return to the stage for the harrowing ‘Portraits’.

Directed by Jeff Szusterman.

The Basement Theatre, Nov 12-16

Newtown Community and Cultural Centre,
Nov 20, 22, 23

Mangere Arts Centre, Nov 25-27

Tickets on sale now:

By arrangement with Playmarket

Verbatim: co-created by Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt
Renee Lyons

Portraits: written by Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie
Jodie Rimmer and Fraser Brown

Theatre , Community-based theatre , Verbatim ,

Touching, affecting, moving

Review by Chris Molloy 03rd Dec 2013

Compiled from real interviews with Kiwi families and victims of violent offenders.  These verbatim scripts are the foundation of these confronting works.  Verbatim and Portraits allow us to go inside the lives of those who have been torn apart by the violent crime. Both the victims’ and the offenders’ stories are equally told; told simply, no frills, no distracting sets, simple modest, raw. 

Verbatim (45min) was co-created by Miranda Harcourt and William Brandt (writer) 20 or so years ago and has been performed numerous times by Harcourt in prisons in New Zealand, New South Wales and Britain, as well as in many theatres.

This time the six characters are skilfully embodied by Renee Lyons.  At no time do the characterisations feel forced. She subtly melds one into the other: a fine example of director – Jeff Szusterman – and actor working in sync.

The lightness, comedic elements and the theatricality allow the audience time to ‘breathe’ into the dark narrative.  Lyons morphs from both the offender’s and the victim’s close family members, with the most touching being Aaron, whose crimes seem to uncontrollably escalate from hooning around in a stolen cars to killing Gail, the homeowner who discovers him burgling her home. 

Aaron is not a stereotypical, cold hearted beast; neither is he incapable of empathy. Lyons’ succinct characterization is such that it makes me reflect on my own life, and ask whether I am doing enough for the many ‘Aarons’ I know. So thank you for that. 

The second play, Portraits (2003) written by Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie, feels more genuine, possibly because it’s based on a single event. Two grieving parents recall the rape and murder of their effervescent 15 year-old daughter.   

Jodie Rimmer and Fraser Brown successfully manage to pull the audience into the sombre narrative by carefully considered performances, as the victim’s heartbroken parents and the murderer and his ex-wife.

Brown has a tranquil quality that he imbues both the father and pathological offender with; done superbly well.  A shaky start is quickly and proficiently overturned by the rigorous Jodie Rimmer. She sinks well into the difficult roles of victim’s mother and the offender’s ex-wife, and does so with heart and humour.

Overall, I leave the Mangere Arts Centre touched, affected, moved. Not often does that happen to me. And the question that punctures my thoughts, the same question that a lot of others would have left the theatre with, is why? Why does this stuff still happen; have we not evolved? Why does it happen so frequently, in our beautiful slice of paradise?

As I pull the car over to drop my colleague off at home that night, he attempts to answer that very question. He says, “The higher the GDP of a country, the worse the social issues.” 

I’m not an economics man myself, I’m not sure what that means exactly, though I nod and sigh as if I do. But it gets me really thinking about my community, Otara and the dysfunction that lies therein.

My conclusion is this: I believe that in each and every one of us lies the potential to commit horrendous acts of violence, but equally the same amount of potential to commit great acts of love, selflessness and kindness.  These two opposing qualities lie dormant within us all, some just under the surface, waiting for a specific mix of environmental factors to get them growing.

I believe that Nature versus Nurture is an archaic and destructive philosophy designed to segregate people. We all have the same genetic predisposition for violence and love, how strongly they manifest, depends on what the social environment mix is.

“The higher the GDP of a country, the worse the social issues?” 

Ma te wa. 


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Timeless questions confronted

Review by John Smythe 21st 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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The shock of the true

Review by Janet McAllister 18th Nov 2013

“Grimburgers,” said a friend when told them I was going to a revival of two-thirds of Miranda Harcourt’s trilogy about violent offending. But this simply staged Last Tapes and JustSpeak production, directed by Jeff Szusterman, is anti-histrionic, and all the more gripping for it. 

For any who have ever wondered what people think, feel and say when crime affects them, these two plays – informed by interviews with victims’ families, as well as people heard even less often: offenders, their mothers, and their exes – show us some possibilities. [More]


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Enough said?

Review by Matt Baker 13th Nov 2013

While I wholly appreciate writer/creator Miranda Harcourt’s personal sentiment that “The poetry of the way real people speak has always been [her] favourite form”, I cannot help but reflect on exactly how it is that verbatim theatre has the ability to make the impact that it can. Recently, I was confronted with the contention that it is impossible for dialogue based on, for example, a legal transcript to ever come close to the prose of the greatest playwrights. The answer, I believe, is the editing of the text into an engaging narrative. 

Verbatim was co-written 20 years ago with William Brandt, but, as director Jeff Szusterman himself discovered, the material is in no way dated. Renee Lyons plays six characters in total, from both the offender’s and victim’s immediate families, the format being yet another testament to her chameleonic abilities. The variation of attitudes from the people on both sides, Szusterman’s pacing, and Lyons’ characterisations, result in not only contrasting shades of light within the inherently dark content, but a punchy piece of theatre that seems almost too brief.

Portraits, on the other hand, written with Stuart McKenzie 10 years later/ago, plays out more like a 20/20 interview without the stimulation of television editing. [More]


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Cuts to the quick

Review by Nik Smythe 13th Nov 2013

A table and some chairs against a white set present a perfectly austere backdrop, doubling as a family dining table and a police interrogation room, for two stark, visceral pieces currently revisiting the stage around the country.

Each script is the result of a hundred or so meetings with violent offenders, the offenders’ families, and the families of the offenders’ victims.  There’s no hiding behind any brilliantly written turns of phrase; character composites and one or two contrived scenarios aside, every word spoken, seemingly every cough, stutter and self-correction are, as the title explains, recited verbatim from interviewees who actually endured these horrific experiences.

The first, Verbatim, was originally devised by William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt, and performed by Harcourt in prisons, schools and theatres twenty years ago.  In this rendition, Renee Lyons takes on a handful of roles to examine the background and aftermath of the murder of a woman by a young man in her own home, when she caught him breaking in to burgle it. 

Lyons’ relaxed naturalism doesn’t force any issue or agenda, but simply allows the inescapable poignant reality to affect us on its own merit, for want of a better word.  Most of the individual characters are based on more than one subject and besides the victim’s husband, who only speaks a few times fairly briefly, the focus is mostly on the murderer himself, and the women closest to him: sister, mother, ex-lover. 

In Portraits, Jodie Rimmer and Fraser Brown give even more desolate dual portrayals of the mother and father of a fifteen-year-old rape /murder victim, and the rapist /murderer and his wife, interviewed four years after the fact.  I gather the narrative for this piece is more authentic, based on a singular true-life incident.  Witnessing the two grieving parents’ struggle to even look at each other as they speak openly about the event and the man who destroyed their lives is nothing short of heartbreaking. 

Jeff Szusterman’s direction clearly takes a less-is-more approach, so that it feels distinctly as though we are hearing exactly what the subjects said, and nothing they didn’t.  The frank, matter-of-fact tone expressed on both sides cuts to the quick, without any resolution or compensation.  All we’re left with is Aaron’s mother’s observation that the word ‘if’ is actually about the biggest word there is. 

What is brought most plainly to light is that the murder victims are only the tip of the iceberg of ensuing pain and suffering, especially when they’re as active and loved as young Tracey was.  It’s all the more heart-breaking as her parents struggle to reconcile their acute sadness and anger with their stoic philosophical values to not judge, keep a stiff upper lip, don’t victimise yourself.   

Fielding a question during the subsequent forum held between the audience and the company, project originator Miranda Harcourt mentions the practical paradox of universality through specificity.  Examining a singular event in gruelling detail, with all its complexities and contradictions, frank confessions and profound despair, creates insight into a much broader human spectrum well beyond the context of the incident in question. 

And there are no end of questions; like any form of such rigorous analysis of the human condition, the answer to any one question invariably gives rise to several more. Well-intentioned folks everywhere are united in their dismay: How? Who? Would? Could? What if? …and the most impossible to answer – Why??

The one I’m most anxious to see an (affirmative) answer to is: will the courage and drive of these people performing these cathartic works ultimately lead to positive, worthwhile reforms in both our justice and education systems, and the attitudes of local communities and society, humanity in general?  Perhaps even to the idealistic, possibly naive extreme that such senseless violence stops occurring altogether? 

In a re-enacted radio-interview, a retired police officer expresses his belief that some people are simply predisposed to selfishness and violence, and that any attempt to engage or rehabilitate them is a waste of taxpayer’s money.  It’s an opinion I really don’t want to agree with yet lack any convincing evidence against. 

In any case, the offenders central to these plays aren’t the kind of sociopathic lost causes he’s talking about, they’re regular people with complex issues who ended up devastating multiple lives, including their own, in moments of irrationality.  Five minutes earlier or later, they might’ve made a different choice.  

I dare say any resulting societal improvement comes down more to the willingness of the observers to take the implicit lessons on board, than any magical, persuasive skill of the performers.  They’re just messengers, delivering real people’s unembellished truths.


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