Powerful play challenges increasingly retributive responses to violent crime

24 October 2014

Verbatim, a short play crafted from the real words of offenders in New Zealand prisons, their families and the families of victims, drew a capacity audience to the Stone Lecture Theatre for a recent one-off performance.

Students and staff were moved by the compelling verbatim portrayals of actress Cherie Moore who presented the words of a prisoner, his sister, his mother and his victim’s spouse.

Describing the play itself as having “powerful impact”, Professor David Williams said this was greatly enhanced by the post-performance words of Dr Rawiri Waretini-Karena, whose life was turned around when he saw the original performance of the play in Waikeria prison 20 years ago.

“His was a strong and challenging story of life-changing redemption,” Professor Williams says. ‘His journey went from being a convicted murderer, showing little remorse, to heartfelt encounters with members of the whanau of his victim.”

“Along the way he became an active in-mate facilitator of the ‘Alternatives to Violence in Prison’ project - a transformational programme to help people deal with conflict and strong emotion - and a student earning degrees in kaupapa Māori counselling (including a PhD).

Verbatim, and stories such as Dr Waretini-Karena’s, challenge the impulses to ever-more retributive responses to violent crime that feature in so much public and party political discourse.”

Associate Professor Jo Manning says Verbatim is a ‘must see’ for law students, especially those contemplating practice in the criminal law and justice field.

“It is an extremely convincing performance,” she says. “It, and the commentary which followed the play, provided a safe place for these intensely personal and life-changing perspectives to be considered and discussed, in a way that the judicial system attempts to do but is ultimately unable.”

Verbatim was devised by pre-eminent actor Miranda Harcourt and Wellington playwright William Brandt in the early ‘90s when they visited a dozen prisons and spoke to between 40 and 50 people who had committed murder. As part of the research, they also visited many homes across the country and collected stories of crime from those who felt the most tragic impact of it, the victims and their families.

From these interviews, Brandt and Harcourt created Verbatim, and toured the play to every prison in New Zealand, as well as schools and in theatres and festivals in New Zealand and overseas.

Almost 15 years on since it was first toured, Last Tapes Theatre Company and JustSpeak have just wrapped up their 2014 tour, challenging audiences with a message about our society, and how we engage with issues around the criminal justice system. The touring group included former Faculty of Law staff member, Danielle Kelly as convenor.