Lethal Indifference theatre review (Wharf 1, Sydney)

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A woman steps off her balcony into her bedroom and starts listing the kinds of things women living in fear of violence routinely do to stay safe. What is your escape plan? Have you hidden a knife in the cake tin? Has he put a tracking device in my child’s teddy bear?

The Woman (Emily Barclay) has drawn the audience into a mindset where constant vigilance and safety checklists are an everyday part of life. All women do it to varying degrees to guard against randomly violent men all the time, but it’s magnified for the clients at the family violence legal service where the Woman works.

Lethal Indifference (a Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf 1 Theatre directed by Jessica Arthur) unfolds as the unnamed Woman delivers a one-and-a-half hour monologue as she moves around the bedroom. The claustrophobic domestic scene initially seems a perplexing choice, then you realise it only emphasises the way violence infiltrates every nook and cranny of women’s lives. There is no safe place.

Barclay, the actor, is unmistakably heavily pregnant, and she changes clothes, cools herself in front of a fan and checks her phone as if she’s readying herself for bed. But she tells the audience a bedtime tale that’s a horror story rather than the kind of fairytale she might want to read to her soon-to-be-born child. Bit by bit, she recounts the fate of Reema, an Indian woman brought to Australia by her taxi-driver husband. He locked her up, raped her and, when she fled, hunted her down and brutally murdered her.

Making a riveting drama out of a systemic problem takes enormous skill.

Barclay performs engagingly and intimately, making the most of every moment, taking us effortlessly here and there, from the Coroner’s Court to the office where she works in communications pitching cases to journalists and tweeting hashtag violence against women, to the final death scene in another bedroom. The play, by the much awarded playwright Anna Barnes, is written in the kind of stream of consciousness, loosely structured, personal essay style that is popular now.

Small details – buying a snack in a servo station, witnessing a couple fight over a phone, a day handing out leaflets for the Greens where she details her outfit of frilly socks and shirt and heels – are offset with statistics about family violence and the unfolding story of Reema’s efforts to escape. It’s the sort of style that many people love – and Barclay honours every moment and detail – but, when it is not done with great skill, it’s a style that (for this reviewer at least) can feel overly mannered, even when it is pretending not to be.

The layering of small detail after detail, the purposeful mixing of the consequential and deadly with the frivolous and banal, the insertion of the narrator into the centre of the story, all these things are meant to convey a sensitive, ethical and feeling witness. It attempts immediacy and verisimilitude but in the process,  the craft – the deliberate and careful sifting and choosing of which detail and why – can seem buried.

Barnes’ play makes the good point that male entitlement and the need to control exists on a spectrum. From the Labor boys who shove her off ‘their’ handing out spot, to the private detective and Ajay’s squad of friends who hunt Reema down. The problem is that if it’s every man and every women, if it’s all of us, how do you make that #yesallmenandwomen story dramatic? How do you make us care about this one woman’s story? How can we understand this one particular monster?

We’ve been talking about male violence for a while now, and this play is a significant part of the conversation. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a structural problem, as Barnes points out. Barclay gives it everything, but making a riveting drama out of a systemic problem takes enormous skill.

Lethal Indifference is playing at the Wharf 1 Theatre until March 10

Photo: Prudence Upton

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