Peter Hawes

Peter Hawes passed away on 29 October at home at Turakina Beach. Hawes made a significant contribution to New Zealand playwriting in the 1980s and achieved productions of his works in all the cities which supported professional theatre companies at that time.

He was born in Westport in 1947, the son of a miner who was also a talented rugby league player. Between the ages of four and eight Hawes lived in Bradford, England, where his father played professional league and he befriended at school Peter Sutcliffe, later to achieve infamy as ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’. Having returned to the Coast he was educated at Buller High School and subsequently graduated from the University of Canterbury in 1969 with a B.A. in History and English.

He worked in the NZBC-TV Christchurch studios as a news researcher and scriptwriter for such programmes as A Week Of It and Hawes for the Asking. In 1980 Elric Hooper, then Artistic Director of the Court Theatre in Christchurch, asked him to write a play and he quickly delivered Alf’s General Theory of Relativity which was staged at the Court in May 1981. The following year the Court premiered a further commission, Ptolemy’s Dip, and in 1983 the Mercury Theatre in Auckland presented Armageddon Revisited. These comedies, with their wit and philosophical conceits, drew comparisons from critics with the works of Tom Stoppard and the Absurdist playwrights.

Having been made Playwright in Residence at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1986, Hawes then changed tack and embarked on a series of plays centred on figures from New Zealand history, the painter Charles Goldie, broadcaster Daisy Basham and atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford. Goldie, premiered at Downstage in 1987 (and revived at the Auckland Theatre Company in 2004), was, in Hawes’ words, ‘about an artist who forged his own paintings’. Aunt Daisy!, his best known work, was commissioned by, and premiered at Downstage in 1989. A musical with a score composed by The Six Volts, it celebrated the life and times of this country’s best-known commercial radio announcer of the mid-20th century. The hit premiere production by Simon Phillips prompted other stagings at Centrepoint in Palmerston North, the Fortune in Dunedin and at the Theatre Royal in Christchurch.

A Higher Form of Killing, a script about Ernest Rutherford and Fritz Haber’s scientific researches in the 1930s, remains unstaged and was later turned by Hawes into a film script for a projected German – New Zealand co-production that did not eventuate. 1946: The Boat Train was commissioned by Centrepoint but in the event was premiered by the Canterbury Arts Network in Christchurch in 1991. It concerns four New Zealand women whose lives are changed by the Second World War. Hawes’ last two plays did premiere in Palmerston North, where he spent the last three decades of his life. The One After the Last Goon Show was staged at the Globe Theatre in 2007 (with Hawes himself playing Harry Secombe) and The Gods of Warm Beer premiered at Centrepoint in 2008. The latter is an autobiographical work involving Westport men considering turning rugby league professionals at the time of the 1951 waterfront lockout. It was subsequently staged at the Court Theatre in 2009.

Peter Hawes is one of the few New Zealand dramatists who has prepared a translation of a foreign language drama for a production in a local theatre. His version of Lorca’s The House of Barnarda Alba was seen at Downstage in 1988. He was able to undertake this work because he lived for four years in the early 1970s in Spain, and while in Barcelona teaching English wrote a novel in Spanish, La Hognera (The Inquisition), which became a best-seller before being banned by the Franco government which saw satiric parallels with its own rule in the work.

In the 1990s Hawes turned to English language fiction and wrote a number of novels, Tasman’s Lay (1995), Leapfrog with Unicorns (1996), Playing Waterloo (1998), Inca Girls Aren’t Easy (1999 as W. P. Hearst), The Dream of Nikau Jam (2000), Royce Royce the People’s Choice (2002) and Pigeon Post (2010).

Hawes was Writer in Residence at Massey University in 1994 and was subsequently a long-time columnist in the Manawatu Standard. With his second wife, Lizzie Barker, he wrote two non-fiction studies, Court in the Spotlight: History of New Zealand Netball and The EXMSS Files (2010). Other television scripting work included More Animals for the Asking, The Muppets NZ and Peppermint Twist. He was the Associate Director of the feature length documentary film, The Neglected Miracle (1985) and was a scriptwriter on the New Zealand – German feature co-production, Te Rua (1989).

At Centrepoint Theatre Hawes acted in a considerable number of productions and wrote a history of the theatre on the occasion of its 40th anniversary in 2014 (Forty Years of Centrepoint Theatre: The History According to Hawes). Fittingly Centrepoint hosted his memorial service on Saturday 3 November 2018.