Denis Harold believes Patrick Evans' play Gifted is a
travesty in its misrepresentation of Janet Frame.
Janet Frame in 2003. Photo by Fairfax.
Patrick Evans' play Gifted, that opened at the Fortune
Theatre on Saturday, suffers from a significant ethical
Though the play is fiction, with all the dialogue and most of
the events having never happened in reality, the three
characters are given the names of real historical people.
The result of Prof Evans' deliberate distortion in his play
of the facts of these peoples' lives is, in my opinion, a
travesty, especially given that Janet Frame died less than 10
The artistic director of the Fortune Theatre, Lara Macgregor,
claims that in Prof Evans' play, ''There's nothing but beauty
and poetry and a huge love, an amazing use of
She goes on to state that, ''What's imagined and what's not
is so blurred and melded together''.
Conrad Newport, the play's director, reinforces her admission
that Gifted is not factual by stating that, ''The
truth is bent for dramatic purposes''.
If, therefore, the play is not true, why had the actors,
according to Ms Macgregor, ''studied videos of their
characters to be more truthful in their portrayals''?
Ms Macgregor and Mr Newport are sending a mixed message.
Janet Frame was a well-known New Zealand author and winner of
the country's most prestigious literary prize when she went
to stay at the property of Frank Sargeson, who knew of her
incarceration in mental hospitals, an experience that she
made no attempt to hide from him or anyone else.
Prof Evans deliberately changes these facts: the character he
gives the name ''Janet Frame'' has no reputation as a writer,
and the character given the name ''Frank Sargeson'' does not
know of her past history.
Many other facts about Frame's life and character are
Prof Evans creates an imaginary character who primarily
engages with reality through bizarre word games akin to
This is untrue, and an insult to a woman who was
self-directed, ambitious and honest.
After attending performances of the play recently in
Christchurch and New Plymouth, some theatre goers and
reviewers have claimed, though admitting they knew little of
Sargeson and Frame, that they found the play ''convincing''.
But what convinced them was a self-contained spectacle.
The Fortune Theatre has created an advertising campaign that
presents a fragmented image of a young woman, girlish in
short white socks and with her legs slightly apart, posed in
front of a hedge that has a partially oval opening in it.
This depersonalised and sexualised imagery is disquieting,
and a clue to Prof Evans' attitude to Frame that is apparent
in other of his writings.
The real Janet Frame was aged 31 at the time in which this
play is set, intellectually mature and courageous, having
triumphed over almost five years of institutional
misdiagnosis and abuse - not a girl.
Next to the Fortune Theatre's promotional image for the play
are words in quotation marks: ''Don't try to change me - I
won't be changed'', followed by the name ''Janet Frame''.
This is a fake quote: Frame never said these words.
Prof Evans, who claims some expertise on Frame's work and
life, would know this. This quote should be followed by the
name ''Patrick Evans''.
The theatre's website links to recent interviews with Prof
Evans and reviews of the play, but does not link to the
interview on the Radio NZ Concert programme Upbeat on
August 19 (available online), in which Eva Radich talked at
length to Prof Evans about his play.
In reply to her question (15 minutes into the interview)
about how he interpreted Frame, Prof Evans replied, ''Well,
ahh, we have in our family a much loved autistic person ...''
Radich: ''Janet of course wasn't autistic ... ''
Evans: ''Ahh, everybody I know who is autistic is autistic
and not autistic. You deal with the person in front of you.''
Radich: ''Janet was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia - that
was certainly never an issue.''
Evans: ''No. But no, that was the label that we had then.''
Radich: ''And the label we have now is autism?''
Evans: ''It is, yes. And you take the person in front of you
and you can see the vulnerability, the difference, the
extraordinary insights that people have who are different in
These are astonishing statements by Prof Evans, a revelation
that he considered Frame had been schizophrenic, which is a
label he now believes has been replaced by ''autistic''.
This is the first time in 40 years, as far as I am aware,
that he has put statements like this on the record.
Under the cloak of ''nothing but beauty and poetry and a huge
love'' audiences are being fed a ''mad genius'' myth that has
There have long been indications that Prof Evans did not
accept that Frame had been wrongly diagnosed with a mental
disorder, despite a panel of world-renowned psychiatrists in
London in 1957 concluding that she had been misdiagnosed.
Prof Evans has often purveyed a catchphrase, ''the myth of
the misdiagnosis'' in an attempt to undermine the fact of
Prof Evans' admission explains why he needed to drastically
change the facts of Frame's life and character in
Gifted: the facts do not fit his fiction.
• Denis Howard, of Dunedin, is a trustee of the Janet
Frame Literary Trust.