Wharf 1, Sydney
February 22, 2018
“There are two types of women in this world. Those that think family violence would never happen to them and those that know it could happen to anyone.”
So says the protagonist in Anna Barnes’ new one-woman play Lethal Indifference – a 90-minute monologue based on her own personal experience.
Emily Barclay in Lethal Indifference. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Barnes, who won the STC’s Patrick White Playwright’s Award in 2012, also works as a publicist for a family violence legal service in Melbourne. Invited to the coroner’s court, she heard the inquest into the death of a woman around the same age as herself who was murdered by her partner. It was a shockingly brutal case, and Barnes couldn’t stop thinking about it. As she candidly admits in the theatre program, she wanted someone else to write about it or cover it in a journalistic way. But it wasn’t to be. “The media weren’t interested in telling this story. So I ended up having to do it myself,” she says.
The resulting play, which she called Lethal Indifference, was workshopped as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s Rough Drafts program in late 2016. Now it is having a mainstage production as part of STC’s 2018 season starring Emily Barclay, who also performed in the Rough Drafts workshop.
The production is deceptively simple. A young, unnamed woman talks to us from her bedroom, telling us about the case and how so many women are let down by the system. The statistics are horrific. One woman is murdered in Australia each week by their partner or former partner.
Though the facts of this particular case are real, the narrator of the play (based on Barnes herself) calls the murdered woman “Reema” and her taxi driver partner “Ajay”, having changed their names at the request of their families. The couple met when Ajay was holidaying in India. He brought Reema back to Australia, where he held her captive, locking her in their flat whenever he was out, beating and raping her when he was at home. Eventually she escaped through a window and took refuge in a safe house, but Ajay was determined to track her down.
Barnes writes the play very cleverly. She weaves in all kinds of observations by her female narrator, allowing for some gentle humour and welcome humanity. We see how the play’s protagonist becomes highly attuned to the tell-tales signs of abusive relationships – the man who grabs repeatedly at his girlfriend’s phone in the servo, jealously suspecting her of something, and how she tries to laugh it off in order to diffuse the situation, like deactivating a bomb. Or the father on the train who is just a bit too rough and impatient with his young child, while the veins beat in the mother’s neck. As the play progresses, we and the narrator herself become aware that she is suffering “vicarious trauma” at all the horrendous situations she encounters through her work.
Little details like the advice to leave your child’s teddy bear behind if you are fleeing a violent partner as it may very well contain a tracking device also hit hard when you have never had to think of such things.
Subtly directed by Jessica Arthur, Lethal Indifference is staged in the narrator’s bedroom, realistically designed by Mel Page – a place you would normally expect to be safe. Large French windows open onto a balcony, which takes on a slightly ominous quality as we consider how easy it would be for someone to try and enter her flat that way. Alexander Berlage’s lighting conveys the passing of time, with rain at one point somehow intensifying our focus even more keenly on the woman, secure (we hope) inside.
Emily Barclay. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Barclay gives a beautifully understated performance. Her tone is conversational. She never over-dramatises the terrible story she is telling but nor does she downplay it. She gives us the facts quietly and lets the horror speak for itself. As Reema’s story unfolds there was a deathly hush among the opening night audience. The fact that Barclay is heavily pregnant somehow adds to the poignancy as we reflect on children caught up in domestic violence, and what might have been for Reema in a different, loving relationship.
Barnes wants us to be aware that domestic violence happens all around us, in every suburb; that it is not an issue of race or class but “an Australian issue”. She is asking us to understand what is happening and why, she wants us to put better systems in place to protect women, and to realise that most family violence is, she believes, a result of gender inequality and male entitlement. As she says in the play: “It takes a whole community to kill a woman.”
Lethal Indifference runs in Wharf 1 until March 10
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463 – a NSW statewide free-call number available 24/7. Or you can ring 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732, which is an Australia-wide 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence help line.