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King of Pigs

"deeply ingrained misogyny"

Steve Rodgers shares his thoughts and fears ahead of the premiere of his unflinching examination of masculinity and domestic violence.

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“It’s time for men to stop watching”

Date: 22 Jul 2018

I started writing King of Pigs over four years ago.

Looking back over my notes from late 2014 as to why the play deserved a production, I argued our theatre wasn’t responsive enough to urgent issues facing our community. If theatre wanted to matter, it had to develop a more robust model of getting raw plays that spoke to issues of the day on to our stages more quickly.

The burning issue I felt needed addressing was the spectrum of ways men abuse power, particularly in our homes, in the worst-case scenarios leading to domestic abuse and sometimes murder. Not a fun subject, but as a playwright, I felt the issue was reaching tipping point.

I was wrong.

Since then, 240 women have been killed by men in Australia, 36 of them this year, according to Destroy the Joint, whose job it is to research this heartbreaking epidemic. This means more than two women are being killed every week, in 90 per cent of those cases by a current or former partner, or a man known to them.

In NSW alone, at the time I started writing King of Pigs, police were called to 65,393 domestic violence incidents that year. While reporting has become more frequent, women’s services are being cut from already chronically underfunded levels.

Despite a growing confidence in the police, it’s still a massively under-reported crime: police estimate they only get called out to 40 per cent of all cases, even though half of all the jobs they are called to are domestic violence-related.

In the time I’ve been trying to get the play programmed, Rosie Batty – whose story depicted the sort of family annihilation that can happen to anyone – has come and gone as Australian of the Year. Rosie bravely exposed her life to highlight male abuse as systemic, on a spectrum that men learn, a societal problem, but most evidently for me, a problem for men to solve.

As the father of two teenaged daughters, and a younger teenaged son, I want all my children to have the same opportunities and rights afforded to them in life.

But they don’t. We live in a society that is still underpinned by a deeply ingrained misogyny.

I feel it when I’m on public transport, through the media, at the pub, at work, and when I’m coaching my son’s footy team. It’s not confined to the working class town I grew up in, in Tasmania, but pervades all postcodes, all socio-economic groups, and all ethnicities.

It’s benign, it’s just a joke, it’s dumb, it’s unconscious, it’s aggressive, it’s used as a bonding agent, it’s a masculinity test, and it’s an enabler to the sort of ‘life and death’ violence in the family home and on our streets we’re becoming numb to.

In June this year, stand up comedian Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered on her way home from work in a park in Melbourne’s inner north by a 19-year-old male.

There was an outpouring of grief over social media, overwhelmingly by women as far as I could tell, and there was a moving vigil and memorial built at the place where the crime occurred, as a way of trying to comprehend, cope with, and resist the senseless violence.

In the same week Eurydice was murdered, my own daughter (aged 15) argued she should be able to walk home at night by herself (about 20 minutes) from soccer practice.

Despite my very real worry, I had to let her, didn’t I? It’s her human right. I don’t want to live in a world where she can’t, but my concern was and is based on a very real dilemma. We live in a society where a woman’s safety and freedom are predicated on men not preying on them.

As all this was happening, the Victorian Police delivered a message to women, “Just make sure you have situational awareness, that you’re aware of your surroundings.”

It’s a message that we should all find disturbing. Its warning covertly implies that women are in some way responsible for the harm inflicted on them in public spaces.

Forced to rebuke the police statement against a growing public backlash, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, probably said it best: “She had a phone. She was using it. She was keeping an eye on her surroundings. Looking out for herself … Being responsible. Doing everything we expect … But Eurydice did not make it home safe …

“We’ll keep asking ‘why was she alone in the dark?’ instead of asking ‘why was he?’ We’ll keep ignoring the real problem instead of actually fixing it. So our message to Victorian women is this: Stay home. Or don’t. Go out with friends at night. Or don’t. Go about your day exactly as you intend, on your terms, because women don’t need to change their behaviour. Men do.”

In the four years writing King of Pigs – close to being produced several times – the play has had overwhelming support and has mainly been championed by women.

This is significant because the work that needs to be done to address the power imbalances and entrenched gender stereotypes that perpetuate abuse, should require men to respond to this work as critically as women. Yet, I know in myself how much easier it is to look away, to dissociate myself as being different from ‘those men’ who abuse as a means of control.

By distancing myself, what I’m really doing is normalising the violating behaviour and leaving my own corruption unexamined. Failing to identify violence against women (and children) as a problem for me to solve is a failure to empathise and connect with my own humanity.

I understand that evolution towards a more equal society is complex, sensitive, and demands that men do indeed step back, listen and allow female leadership to control the gender debate. But also, now is not the time to excuse men from taking responsibility.

We have to stay connected and work collectively to end the violence and inequality. As Fairfax columnist Clementine Ford so aptly put it: “I am increasingly disagreeing with the view that not all men are part of the problem, and it’s because I truly think most of them don’t understand that the problem is theirs to solve … I have a male partner whom I love, and I’m the mother of a son I would die for a million times over, but the gap between where we live in the world is treacherously cavernous. Still, I, and billions of women like me, try to create safe passage between those two spaces every day. We are building the bridge, while they mostly just watch.”

It’s time for men to stop watching.

Not withstanding all the male actors who have read and workshopped King of Pigs over the journey, and director and dramaturg Iain Sinclair, who was invaluable in helping me refine it, I’d like to single out the women who have helped me during the process.

Anne-Louise Sarks and I collaborated on the initial drafts I wrote and her feedback, questions, honesty and support were vital.

Kate Box, Kath Tonkin, Emma Jackson and Anita Hegh have all read the central role at various stages, and been instrumental in shaping the work.

Patricia Cornelius was my dramaturg at the Playwriting Australia Festival and it was a couple of the best weeks of my writing life as she provoked, questioned, railed against, edited and nurtured my work.

And finally to Mum, Kaz and Jo – my sisters, my kids Lil, Gracie and Sam, and my wife, Jo Kerrigan, who everyday asks me to step up for a fairer world. Thank you.

During my research I came into contact with the Women and Girls Emergency Centre in Redfern (WAGEC), a non-government, not-for-profit organisation delivering a range of crisis and early intervention accommodation and support services to women and children who are experiencing, or at risk of homelessness, due to family violence.

On any given night they are housing up to 180 women and children, and I have become very close to the organisation and the work they do. They need our support, so if you can, go to their website and donate. The actors will also be holding a bucket out at the end of the show, and any loose change you can drop in will go a long way to keeping those affected by violence safe.

As I write, Blazey Best is two weeks into rehearsal, directing Ella Scott Lynch, Mick Bani, Christian Byers, Ashley Hawkes, Kire Toveski, Thom Blake and Wylie Best at the Old Fitzroy Theatre for Redline Productions, having finally found a home when it seemed like it wouldn’t – and still the terror in our community goes on unabated.

Every day there’s another story. Twelve days ago a man was arrested after the discovery of a woman’s body, his partners, burnt to death in her family home in Cranbourne North. Seven days ago, a 19-year-old man was charged with three counts of murder after a mother and her two children were found slain in a Perth home. And five days ago, an unnamed 27-year-old woman was found dead in a shed at the rear of a property in Griffith, with an unnamed man arrested a few hours later, having breached a domestic violence apprehended order.

And worse, by the time King of Pigs opens, these stories will be old, and replaced by more violent tragedy.

My Dad worked as a counsellor with men who have anger management problems, some with domestic violence convictions. After learning I was writing the play, he offered me some advice: When examining an issue that seems intractable, unchanging, and even hopeless, try to find some hope.

The human experience has a way to travel yet. We’ve got to believe we can change it for the better.

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