Time Out speaks with Stephen Sewell about his monumental gothic thriller, Hate, which kicks off Malthouse Theatre's season for 2013
"At that time I wanted to really lay my hands on the rotten, dying heart of a rotten and corrupt system," says Stephen Sewell, speaking with Time Out from his new base at Sydney's NIDA, where he was recently appointed head of writing for performance. "I wanted to have its poisonous blood up to my elbows, so that I could understand what this country was doing to me and doing to other people around me."
The time was 25 years ago, and the play was Hate, Sewell's vigorous dismemberment of a plutocratic patriarch and his grotesque family, the Gleasons.
"The play is about how the poison of that knowledge, the poison of colonialism, seeps through all their relationships," says Sewell. "What Australian people tend to do is to imagine that they can cordon off these feelings and realities and claim for themselves, as we do so often, that we're basically a good people."
The play was originally written as a bicentennial commission, emerging from the fascinating cultural angst of that time. Patrick White, for instance, publically rebuked Sewell for participating in a celebration of British settlement, no matter how critical his stance.
"I decided to do it," recalls Sewell, "because I knew what I would write, and I knew that my silence wouldn't be recognised quite as much as my voice."
The play is being revived by Malthouse Theatre artistic director Marion Potts who believes audiences will be startled at how relevant the play seems today.
"It connected with some of the mythic roots of our culture," agrees Sewell, "some of the larger than life characters who are stalking Australian political life at the moment, Clive Palmer and people of that sort, are very, very firmly rooted in the sort of traditions that the play is dealing with."
He also singles out the Hancock family, whose fortune is currently controlled by Gina Rinehart, as a family that tore itself apart in a similar way to the Gleasons, but he is quick to point out that there are many identical family dramas in Australian pastoral and business life.
Recently republished with the Australian Script Centre, the play is certainly one of Sewell's strongest. It has a stern, monumental sense of gravity, all set inside the one house over the course of one night, a storm raging outside, and inside.
Yet there's also something fiercely anarchic about the rapid progress of the plot, something almost comic.
"I think that's my dirty secret," says Sewell, "that actually I've been writing comedies the entire time. You're not the first to think that. I think that there is something deeply humorous and ironic and, and ..."
As he reaches for the right word we suggest "mischievous".
"Yes," he laughs, "and I was about to say evil. I'm always chuckling menacingly as I write."