It was only a matter of time before the rise of long-form podcast storytelling began to influence what we see on our stages.
A few years ago, Lethal Indifference might have been a tough pitch to a mainstage theatre company. A 90-minute monologue focused on the real-life murder of a young woman in Melbourne? Not an easy sell.
Now, in the wake of Serial, the hit audio documentary on the circumstances surrounding the death of an American high school student, Anna Barnes’ Lethal Indifference feels very viable, very now, and an inspired programming choice by the Sydney Theatre Company.
Barnes draws on her own experience working in communications and PR for a family violence legal centre in Melbourne. The story is related via an unnamed woman in her early 30s (played by Emily Barclay), a would-be writer turned “Felicity from publicity” who takes a job at a legal centre in the western suburbs.
The warp and weft of the piece is the case of a young woman (“Reema” in this script) who migrates from India to be with her partner, “Ajay”, a taxi driver.
A brief, happy-enough-seeming period of marriage is derailed by money and housing woes. Ajay reveals himself to be an abuser. He beats Reema, rapes her, locks her in their rented house for hours and then days at a time.
Eventually, Reema escapes, reports her situation, finds refuge elsewhere in the city and obtains order forbidding Ajay to contact or approach her.
She’s safe now, you might think.
Not so. Circumventing the order with help from his taxi driver colleagues, a private detective and, disturbingly, a contact in an Indian telecom firm, Ajay begins to track her whereabouts.
Through the telling of that story, which Barnes condenses into a gripping, journalistic account, Lethal Indifference shines a hard light on the issues faced by women in family violence situations and the shortcomings of frontline government services, the police, and a legal system that requires a survivor to confront an abuser in court.
Pacing her apartment bedroom overlooking the city (Mel Page’s chic but cheerless design invites the viewer to speculate if the narrator is in hiding herself), The Woman weaves in her experiences, not as a victim of violence herself but as a witness schooled in observing the signs: in a tussle over a mobile phone in a queue at the servo; in a father gripping a fractious child too hard on a train. Everywhere she sees women defusing the ticking bombs of male rage and entitlement.
Jessica Arthur’s production (her first for the STC) is minutely crafted with elements of sound (Clemence Williams, working at the edge of perception at times) and light (Alexander Berlage) nudging our focus and creating subtle shades of anticipation and dread.
Barclay’s performance is remarkable for its unselfconsciousness and quicksilver shifts in intensity. Mostly it doesn’t feel like performance at all. Rather it feels like we are observing someone engaged in the difficult, sensitive work of telling uncomfortable truths.