Note: This review discusses domestic violence and sexual assault. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
In 2018 alone, 39 women have died by violence in Australia. One in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence. The numbers – and the behaviours behind the numbers – are disturbing. And in King of Pigs, by actor/writer Steve Rodgers and directed by actor turned director Blazey Best, those behaviours are everywhere.
There’s the partner (Mick Bani) who controls and minimises his wife’s interactions with the outside world. The co-worker (Christian Byers) who teams up with his mates to take advantage of a drunk date. The film buff (Ashley Hawkes) who seems like a nice guy, but owns way too many guns. These men are #notallmen, but Ella Scott-Lynch is every woman in this play: the only one onstage, the victim of the full lineup. By stepping into every different scenario, we’re able to see how, just by being a woman, she’s consistently at a disadvantage. Dating and love isn’t safe for women, and King of Pigs doesn’t shy away from this critical, but often avoided, reality.
There are two men onstage that aren’t violent – there’s one who works with victims and perpetrators of family violence (Kire Tosevski), and there’s his son Ari (Thom Blake and Wylie Best share the part). Ari is young and not yet lost in the hallmarks of toxic masculinity like bravado and entitlement, but as we watch all the other men play out their roles, we know that Ari could just as easily become one of them. Any young man could; the patriarchy hurts men too by tamping down their emotions and demanding they seek power or be left behind.
It’s a sometimes brutal but straightforward play, and Best keeps tight focus on the all-too-human interactions at the heart of the script; she highlights moments of connection and the origins of anger and fear, as well as Scott-Lynch’s despair and her various attempts to de-escalate each situation as it becomes unsafe. We can’t look away, because in the tiny Old Fitz space, there’s nowhere else to look. Best has created a small-scale reckoning.
Her work here is made possible because there’s room for it in Rodgers’ surprisingly sensitive script. A play about male-perpetrated violence against women written by a man could feel indulgent, unnecessary, or counter-productive, but Rodgers centres women and doesn’t excuse or downplay the behaviour of these men. There’s an element of education in his script that, for a play in a pub that’s likely to be seen by Sydney men in various stages of life, could be genuinely eye-opening.
The cast is generous and committed. Scott-Lynch gives a harrowing, frayed performance as the woman who is all women who date and marry men, and the ensemble of male actors play anything from rapists to abusers with commitment; they don’t seem to make excuses for these men, either, and there’s something near cathartic watching these men own their own horrific behaviour.
Isabel Hudson’s set is mutable and utilitarian – it highlights the common threads of abuse even if the individual circumstances of each case are different; iOTA’s original compositions play into that space and build up its fear and complexity.
King of Pigs is not an easy play to watch, especially as it ramps up towards the end of its 75-minute running time. It takes a textbook approach to gendered violence – how it begins, how difficult it is to seek help, how it traumatises women – that could be difficult to bear for survivors of that violence, or violence like it, in its honesty. And while some of us know these facts and signs all too well, it’s likely to be new ground for others. It feels like an ‘issues’ play, but it’s an issue that needs more discussion, and more witnessing.
Continuing a welcome tradition in the Sydney independent theatre sector of late, this production of King of Pigs is raising funds for, and awareness of, the Women and Girls Emergency Centre (WAGEC) in Redfern. This is one of the vital but always under-funded services working to help women who are abused. That this play doesn’t just show us violence, but provides us a way to constructively help create more options for victims of that violence, is commendable. If you see the play – or if you read this review – consider donating.