This Sydney Festival show about misogyny has critics and audiences divided
The violence of Daughter is suffocating. Written and performed by Canadian actor/director Adam Lazarus as a winding (presumably fictional) monologue into the darkest confessions of misogyny and sexual violence, its cruelty is front-and-centre, never leavened, justified or condemned. It is simply thrown at you, fast, and without any tools you may need to catch it. It will hit you in the face, or the gut, or wherever you feel your feelings most strongly.
You may find it to be gripping and essential or you may hate it, as I did. You may find yourself holding the friend you’ve come with, shattered by the end – as I did.
Lazarus is ‘Father’ – the man we’ll be spending the next 70 minutes with – and he begins his monologue with seemingly cute anecdotes about his young daughter and their living room dance party rituals. Sure, he makes fun of her moves, the way she talks, but we give him the gift of good faith. But then the story of his life and his experience of women and girls unfolds, and it’s ugly. A story of a difficult birth gives way to other, more objectifying and horrifying stories from the Father’s life: from casual sexism to dubious sex tourism in Japan, and interactions with pornography and sex workers, to recounts of rape and the Father’s violent affair – stories that lead to a devastating end. To say it’s difficult to witness is an understatement.
It is perhaps arguable that there is power in a show that presents the ugliest aspects of toxic masculinity in its purest form (Artaud’s theory of Theatre of Cruelty would even insist that this is the only way to present and process such darkness on stage). But you cannot separate that intention from the impact it has on its audiences, and during Daughter, audiences witness and process an emotional load that hangs heavy like a millstone. Nor does Daughter add value and understanding to our comprehension of the problems of male violence in our contemporary society, where 69 women were murdered last year by their partners in Australia alone; not to mention that one in three Australian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, violence, or assault. We know this darkness; women touch it every day. Men, too, are shaped by it every day.
Daughter, then, is not an information service or an eye-opening journey somewhere we don’t understand, and it doesn’t offer new insights into the condition of modern masculine horror; it becomes an exercise in violence for the sake of violence. By giving this topic an un-interrogated, un-framed platform it is necessarily valorised and glorified as worthy, shipped in by Sydney Festival as a treat for us; an example of great and worthy international art. We are asked, and expected, to find value in a piece that hurls invective at an audience, and, when that audience begins to protest, is admonished by Lazarus for pretending we are better than his character and his base instincts.
The work has toured multiple countries and I am not the only woman who has felt that it ‘“show[s] a man’s lack of empathy for women by having a complete lack of empathy for women.” But many women too have praised the show for its unflinching focus and its intention to cause discomfort; they have found it effective and essential. It is not my role to decide which of these camps is correct (the answer to that question is of course both, and neither, at the same time). But you do need to know about each to decide whether this show is something you can bear. It can hurt to experience it. It can stir up difficult emotions and past experiences; whatever your camp, please take good care of yourself while interacting with this show.
A final note: Daughter has partnered with White Ribbon Canada. That feels horribly apt: the Australian White Ribbon organisation is widely criticised for prioritising and rewarding the shallow, soapbox actions of male ambassadors rather than meaningfully addressing the issue of, or contributing to a shared solution towards, the epidemic of male violence.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that the production partnered with White Ribbon Australia. The production instead partnered with White Ribbon Canada.