How do you approach an important subject such as domestic violence in a theatrically engaging manner without exploiting it? The most obvious thing would be to present it as truthfully as possible. But there’s a tendency for storytellers to take on causes that aren’t their own and attempt to suggest they know better. For the privileged to impose their own ideas and prejudices onto minorities. The result is usually highly dissonant work that harms the very cause it seeks to support. Real people’s stories are inadvertently reduced to after school specials.
Framed as a documentary-within-a-play, Not in our Neighbourhood introduces us to the world of four women at a women’s refuge through the eyes of filmmaker Maisey. And it’s their stories that take centre stage. There’s Moira, who runs the refuge and looks after the clients, suggesting a chipper nature which belies her actual strength; Cat, a quiet and broken individual burdened with a heavy past; Sasha, the bold and brash one, who always speaks her mind; and Teresa, the wife of an important public figure, whose sense of propriety has kept her bottled up for decades. Though painted in somewhat broad strokes, each one is given a distinctive voice by writer and director Jamie McCaskill, who displays an impressive ear for realistic dialogue.
This wouldn’t mean anything without a strong performer to bring all these characters to life, and Kali Kopae is more than up to the task. There’s never a single moment where the audience doesn’t know who she is playing, her characterisations incredibly clear and vivid. All four women are given a chance to shine through Kopae, though some more than others. The best example is when, as Teresa, she confesses to the camera, recounting her husband’s fits of rage. She puts on a forced smile, grinning painfully through harsh memories. As heartbreaking as her words are, it’s the way she says them that hits hardest.
Staged in traverse, with chairs and lamps scattered all over the stage, the image of domesticity is conveyed without being overly abstract. Though sometimes it seems to beg for more actors to fill the space, and leads to some awkward blocking, Kopae deals with it confidently.
Despite being presented as a one-woman show, Not in our Neighbourhood does cheats itself in one scene. [SPOILER: Highlight to view] Suddenly there’s a man onstage playing the abusive husband of Teresa. And while dramatically effective, it also seems to undermine the strength of Kopae’s solo performance and the established rules of the play. Up until this point (and after), all the women have been played solely by Kopae and the men have been left to the audience’s imagination. Rather than feeling honest, this feels like the machinations of a writer. It’s a brief but notable misstep in a play that is constructed almost entirely through the world of its female characters. [END SPOILER]
To McCaskill’s credit, though the content of the play is heavy, it never wallows in misery. Comedy is used as an effective coping mechanism for the characters as well as the audience. And it’s here that the characters come to life, establishing themselves as living, breathing human beings. Not just victims with histories of abuse. There are moments, however, where Sasha, the youngest, becomes the butt of her own jokes, and I find some of the audience laughing at her rather than with her.
The play excels when it deals exclusively with the lives of the women, their ups and downs, their pain and redemption. The scenes outside of this lack the same careful consideration. Maisey’s presence ultimately feels completely arbitrary, nothing more than a plot device, and requires more development. While we start and finish with her, the rest of the play doesn’t ultilise her or the camera’s presence with any consistency or logic.
Not in our Neighbourhood wants to tell us that domestic violence against women happens all around us, not limited to class, age and racial binaries. As a tool for social awareness, it more than gets the job done. It’s moving, informative and impeccably performed. No one coming out of this play will find the content easy to sweep under the rug. And while it hasn’t quite balanced its artistry with its aims for advocation, it carries an important message that needs to be heard. Not satisfied with simply being entertainment, this is theatre with a purpose.
Not in Our Neighbourhood is presented by Tikapa Productions and the Auckland Arts Festival and plays at Q Loft until 4 March and Te Oro on 5 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.