Theatre: Hate Crimes

* Hate Crimes
* by Paul Rothwell
* directed by David Lawrence
*at Bats, Wellington
* until 9 April

Most theatre trades in truth. Regardless of genre, style or content, most plays seek to explore or exploit some reality of human experience. And sometimes the truth is hard to take.

Paul Rothwell’s Hate Crimes begins with playground bullying. Over the next two inexorable hours he explores the capacity for everyone and anyone to vent hatred on other people. The hated become the haters. And he tracks the inevitable outcome. In the hate game, no-one wins.

But the play is not a lecture, although most of the characters are given to cobbling moralistic justifications, both before and after events have turned them into haters. And what they say is every-day currency in the real world. We sometimes say or think it ourselves.

To start with it’s easy to empathise with the bullied Gareth and Chinese fee-paying student Elliot who boards with his family. Even their tormentor Felix prompts sympathy as he wrestles with the unexpected consequences of his actions. Gareth’s car smash suicide attempt is all too credible and one can only feel for his separated mother Marlene and be grateful his professional caregiver Rosslyn is there to help.

The very ‘out-there’ gay Maori schoolteacher Hayden, Marlene’s best friend since school days, seems to have a sound sense of justice and good strategies for turning around antisocial behaviour. Even Rosslyn’s son Ace seems capable of growing out of the hate group he’s joined as a way of expelling his inner angst.

When love blossoms between Marlene and Ace, the future seems rosy. But everyone can succumb to hatred and act on it. It’s just a question of what would release that impulse.

What if Hayden was exploiting the brain-damaged and physically helpless Gareth? What if Elliot was physically harming himself to garner sympathy then blackmailing Hayden for cold hard cash? What if Rosslyn’s good works hid an inveterate hatred of human weakness at all levels?

The undeniable truth of Erin Banks’ Marlene makes her metamorphosis into violent hatred as compelling as it is shocking. Hadleigh Walker’s tunnel-visioned Ace is especially unnerving when he exhibits the values of a good family man in the home.

James Stewart and Alex Grieg realise the complexities of Gareth and Felix with great authenticity. Sonia Yee’s Elliot and Laughton Kora’s Hayden demand the audience confront their own hidden prejudices, and compensating tendencies, by transcending stereotypes to individualise their self-serving characters.

On opening night Kate Fitzroy’s intelligently observed Rosslyn had yet to compel belief and empathy.

Director David Lawrence premieres Rothwell’s challenging work with a vital integrity. As both play and production develop, I’d like to hear less text and see more texture in the non-verbal dimensions of human behaviour.

Even so, as an investigation into the human capacity for committing domestic, suburban and urban atrocities, I find Hate Crimes more effective than its recently produced counterparts, A Clockwork Orange (Silo) and Bedbound (Bats). Rothwell is definitely a playwright to watch.

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