Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 10, 2018
Playwright: Anna Barnes
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Emily Barclay
Image by Prudence Upton
Reema is an Indian bride, brought to Melbourne to be starved, bashed and raped by her new husband Ajay. We know this, because a white woman is onstage telling us the harrowing story. The intention in Anna Barnes’ Lethal Indifference is good, of course, as it shines a light on domestic violence, one of Australia’s biggest problems. The one-woman show however, affords no space to any of its Indian characters, only an unnamed protagonist who works as a media representative of an anti-violence organisation, struggling to cope with the weight of her vocation.
To place a white person at the centre of Reema’s story is deeply problematic. The removal of already underrepresented ethnic minorities from our theatres is reprehensible, especially when their stories are at the core of what is being discussed. If it were a woman of colour who takes to the stage, this issue might well be dissipated. It is noteworthy that in fact, there is no reason at all that requires our storyteller to be white, if we wish to examine the production from this perspective.
Also, Lethal Indifference unwittingly presents domestic violence as an “ethnic” problem, with its heavy reliance on Reema and Ajay, where we know for a fact that domestic violence occurs indiscriminately in all types of households. To single out a racial minority to facilitate this discussion, instead of having the unnamed woman “tidy up her own backyard” so to speak, using instead, stories of white families, is objectionable.
The heavily pregnant Emily Barclay stars, with suitable charm, leaving us feeling as bad for her character as we do the true victims of domestic violence. Barclay’s portrayal of second-hand “vicarious” trauma almost succeeds in stealing the thunder from Rameen, the invisible character who has clearly paid the much greater price for Lethal Indifference‘s melodrama.
It is a polished piece of theatre, with Mel Page’s ominous set design drawing us into the dark world that is being evoked, providing stark gravity to the space that is being explored. Director Jessica Arthur creates sufficient variation within the long monologue, to sustain our attention and interest. The production’s seeming ignorance about its own racial problem, is astonishing, considering the surface sophistication that it so proudly exhibits.
When we talk about women’s problems, we need also be sensitive to other forms of subjugation and persecution that people suffer in our communities. It is not a matter of white women’s problems being less worthy of analysis than those borne by women of colour, but in the process of discussing any prejudice and injustice from a context of Australian whiteness, we must fight for the voices of ethnic minorities to be duly represented. The disappearance of Reema from this production, one that boasts an all-white stable of cast and creatives, reveals so much about our failures in Australian art and society.