William Zappa plays John Gleason in <i>Hate</i>.

William Zappa plays John Gleason in Hate. Photo: Lachlan Woods

POLEMIC playwright Stephen Sewell has all the hallmarks of success - awards, accolades and a bucket-load of kudos - but the re-emergence of his Bicentenary play, Hate, has left him feeling like a failure.

This is because nothing has changed, he laments, since 1988, when he penned the story of megalomaniac John Gleason and his equally troubled family, whose collective fingers all hover inches above the self-destruct button, behind a perfect facade.

To sum it up, the Gleasons are a vastly rich, white family with a large farm in Gippsland, where the wife, Eloise, spends most of her time pretending everything is OK.

Stephen Sewell explores the politics of wealth in <i>Hate</i>.

Stephen Sewell explores the politics of wealth in Hate. Photo: Lachlan Woods

John, a patriarch with monolithic ambition, is on the brink of political stardom in Canberra, while the couple's three children find various ways to rebel against their awful parents - shifty eldest son Raymond is, like his father, a master of deceit and manipulation; head-strong daughter Celia marries the wrong man, while unworldly youngest son Michael escapes into a world of drugs.

Typically, John Gleason is a father who buries his fragility and thinks emotions are weak. The conundrum of humanity - to feel pity for lost dreams, and the quavering vulnerability that exists in everyone - is anathema to him. Insecurity makes him shout, not whisper; to strike out in an attempt to get what he wants, rather than tug gently on the sleeve.

The country estate is the setting for the drama, which unfolds over the space of a weekend after Gleason, like some modern-day King Lear, calls his family together to test their love and loyalty before carving up his immense financial empire. Outside, a storm is raging; sympathetic background indeed to the growling tensions and butter-thick atmosphere that clogs every room in the house as the siblings profess love but seethe hate.

Is it all sounding rather familiar? ''I don't think Gina Rinehart is the only person who would find it pertinent,'' Sewell says, speaking from his home in Sydney. ''Though it's a very generous movement on her part to display her family problems just at the time when there's a revival of my play.''

Hate was written as a Bicentenary commission and was well received by audiences and critics, winning the New South Wales Premier's Award (though Patrick White publicly admonished Sewell for participating in a celebration of British settlement, no matter how critical his stance).

But now, 25 years later, Sewell's pleasure at seeing the play revived is tempered by his despair that so little has changed politically. ''The play was an attempt to look at white Australia and the kinds of dilemmas and contradictions people who are part of the ruling-class experience; for example, the way the tax system was set up to serve rich people and protect their wealth was very common at the time and caused family disputes. Not a jot has changed,'' he says. ''It is also really very depressing to recall how 25 years ago the ecological crisis was being talked about, and it's just gotten worse.

''If I want to see myself as a playwright contributing to the improvement of life on Earth, it looks like my experience is a complete … failure.''

Sewell is renowned for being a voice for the dispossessed, and his plays tackle big themes using huge canvasses (and sometimes equally big titles) - Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America, which also won a New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 2004, dealt with the war on terror. Closer to home, several of his other plays, such as The Blind Giant is Dancing, tackle moral decline, love gone wrong and political underhandedness.

He regularly mines the deep seam of anger that runs through the core of his being as fodder for his scripts. ''I often feel like the wronged wife … you know they are f---ing you over but you put up with it to keep the peace.'' By this, he means he feels he is being cuckolded by a philandering parliament. What he wants instead is a virtual democracy.

''If I can buy a book on Amazon via the internet, why can't the internet replace parliament? The technological changes available now are destroying any need for a parliamentary system that is no longer working, anyhow.''

I tell him Amazon stuffed up my book order recently; imagine if the wrong person got the wrong vote. ''But what we have now is scarier,'' he insists. ''Me and my children strapped into a machine that we have no control over heading straight for the precipice.''

Having young kids (his are aged three and five) has made him angrier, he says. ''I now realise that parents will do anything to protect their children. They will lie and they will kill. I don't think there is anything more extreme than a desperate parent. I understand that now more than I used to.''

In the Malthouse production of Hate, desperate parent Gleason is played by the gentlemanly William Zappa, who is enjoying his foray into megalomania (he had a bit of practice last year playing Rupert Murdoch for television's coming Paper Giants: Magazine Wars).

''Any sane, reasonable person would get a chill up their spine if they thought for one minute that my character was going to become prime minister,'' Zappa says.

''I think we've all experienced that in our lives at the thought of a certain person becoming in charge of the country.''

The prose is violent, the emotions extreme and the climax cataclysmic, but, as Sewell points out, it is all rather tame compared with the language that is used today.

The recent talk-back radio debacle shows Australian political discourse continues to be driven by an angry, visceral rage, making the play seem just as relevant now.

Sewell can't help but wonder what's behind the poisonous rhetoric or the lack of genuine dialogue that continues to keep the country in a state of cognitive dissonance. ''And we're supposed to be the lucky country,'' he says.

There is a thin membrane between sanity and madness, love and its ugly counterpart, hate. The Gleasons, with their deep pockets hiding dark secrets, show us just how easy it is to cross the line.

Hate runs at Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, from February 20 to March 8.