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Theatre Review: Verbatim & Portraits

Nov 14, 2013 Theatre


Written by William Brandt, devised by William Brandt and Miranda Harcourt


Written by Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt

Last Tapes Theatre Company and JustSpeak

The Basement

November 13, 2013

Reviewed by Frances Morton

Twenty years ago thespian extraordinaire Miranda Harcourt collected dozens of interviews with violent offenders, their families and their victims’ families and used them as a basis for the hard-hitting solo show Verbatim, the sad telling of a brutal stranger murder which she performed in prisons as well as theatres. Ten years later Harcourt used the same process for Portraits about a 15-year-old girl’s rape and murder. The two works are being restaged at the Basement this week and at Mangere Arts Centre (Nov 25-27) by JustSpeak, an organisation of young people seeking to change New Zealand’s criminal justice system. What’s striking about these two short plays is how the issues that contribute to violence and misery in our society have changed little over the past 20 years. All too often offenders appearing in court have a history of drug and alcohol abuse and/or come from family backgrounds where violence and incarceration is the norm. This was corroborated in a post-show forum where Judge Jonathan Moses from Manukau’s Family Violence Court and social worker Lois Naera of Pillars, a mentoring programme for children of prisoners, spoke.

Verbatim and Portraits are confronting. They make you think. And think about things you may not want to consider, like what was going through offenders’ minds at the time of their horrific crimes. It’s rare to feel empathy for offender’s when reading crime news reports. Putting the stories in a theatre opens up new complexities. The real strength of these two plays is their authenticity. Words have been taken straight from real people’s mouths and you can feel that honesty in the lines. Fear, shame and anger trip up in painful laden repeated words and redundancies.

In Verbatim Renee Lyons switches between six characters both female and male, covering the murderer, his family, his victim and the victim’s family. It’s an exceptional performance with each character clearly defined by voice and body language that delivers a heart-wrenching layered tale of loss and grief on both sides.

In Portraits Jodie Rimmer and Fraser Brown have fewer characters to juggle. Rimmer is suitably drawn and anguished as the 15-year-old victim’s mother but her transition to the murderer’s also-distressed ex is played confusingly close. Brown’s handling of the heartbroken father and chilling offender is more successful.

With just a simple set of chairs and a table and the power of this unflinching script to work with, this is theatre at its most raw and effecting. It’s a shame then that the tiny upstairs space at the Basement is not soundproofed against the distracting babble drifting up from the car park. The plays, and the real issues they present, deserve full attention.

The Basement Studio, until November 16.

Mangere Arts Centre, November 25-27.



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