Please Like Me's Emily Barclay stars in this one-woman play tackling family violence and our complicity
Note: this review discusses domestic violence.
We can’t talk about Lethal Indifference without first talking about playwright Anna Barnes. Alongside her writing practice, Barnes has worked in PR and communications at a family violence legal centre. While on the job, she came across a story of a woman – Barnes calls her Reema – who was murdered by her partner. The coroner’s report has haunted her ever since and though, as she explains in the program for the play, she wanted a journalistic take on the story – for “someone else to write it” – the media wasn’t interested in covering the story. So Barnes wrote a play.
Lethal Indifference features a Woman (Emily Barclay), a stand-in for Barnes who, restless in her apartment, explores the myriad ways our legal and protective systems can and have failed women who are subject to domestic violence (also known as family violence or intimate partner violence).
It jumps off from the story that has haunted Barnes (with names and identifying details changed, per the family’s request), recounting to us all the ways that “it takes a community to kill a woman.” As she talks, the Woman editorialises and personalises, infusing the stories with statistics, observations from her own life, and the way that a writer with a background in retail can become thrown into a world of devastating stakes where any attempts to help women seem stymied by various systems that favour male freedoms at the risk of female safety.
She begins to see the thread of violence and the power disparity between men and women everywhere: she is tracking the signs, the darkness lurking beneath the benign ways a man might show his strength or control over a woman. She talks about an incident she witnesses at a petrol station, where a man snaps at his partner, grabs at her and her phone. She watches the woman laugh it off. And our Woman sees the truth of the encounter now: the woman is deactivating bombs. She’s trying to mitigate anger to reduce the threat of violence. This is a reflexive behaviour found in many straight women, engaging, as they must, in relationships with men who live in a world that is set up to let them feel entitled over a woman’s body. Is talking down men “the work of woman”? Barclay’s Woman wonders, not without frustration.
The Woman tells us about vicarious trauma, where those who work in the sector are traumatised alongside survivors; she speaks disarmingly and self-effacingly about her evolution from ignorance to hyper-awareness. Barclay is a spark and our guiding light through these uncomfortable truths; she’s conversational and a little funny and endlessly watchable – the friend you have who lights up a room every time she walks in.
Jessica Arthur, in her mainstage directing debut, has crafted a considered production; its seeming diffidence belies a subtle sense of guided momentum that can only come from real confidence with the story and with a director’s choices. Every element of the production makes straightforward, grounded sense. Consider Mel Page’s realist design, a room featuring an earthy palette with a large glass door that open onto a balcony. Alexander Berlage’s lighting slates in through the doors, capturing streetlight and lamplight alike. When rain starts to fall outside, quietly foreboding, it reminds us to empathise, and listen, as Barclay speaks. Clemence Williams’ sound design operates this way too: it’s unobtrusive, gently directing our attention back to the text, gathering the building tension and coaxing it forward.
There is a sense in the self-aware, constantly self-editing way Barnes is telling us this story that indicates she is aware of a disconnect: this is a white woman who has borne witness to the story of an Indian woman, who filters the story through her own lens and experience. But it is Barnes’ experience that we are exploring (in the play’s program notes, she says it felt inauthentic to try to write the story of Reema, trying to avoid co-opting her experience with Barnes’ own voice) and as Barclay grapples with the story in the telling, we begin to get a clearer sense of Barnes’ impetus for writing Lethal Indifference.
In this way, the work is a polemic: Barnes is using the privilege she’s afforded as a young white middle-class woman to shed light both on Reema’s story, and on the stories of the voiceless – the unnamed neighbour in the Woman’s apartment block, who she hears screaming and thumping on the walls at night; the women left with both invisible and visible scars after escaping violence, their lives forever altered, but not enough for the press to shout their pain to the rooftops and cry for justice.
On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner in Australia and one in four women in Australia have experienced violence from an intimate partner. While this is a story about Reema, and about the way Reema’s death has shaped Barnes’ life, it is also about every single woman – about the idea that this can happen to all women. And that it is indifference, blind eyes, a lack of effort, a willingness to ignore the social violence of men, that allows this strain of violence to flourish. Barnes is asking us to open our eyes. Barnes is asking us to demand justice and advocate for change. She’s asking us to notice the signs.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the 24-hour Domestic Violence Line on 1800 64 63. An Australia-wide 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line can be reached by calling 1800-RESPECT. If you need crisis support, call Lifeline’s 24-hour support line on 13 11 14.