After the performance: I’m in a cubicle hearing the sounds of swearing and sobbing outside. There’s something intense about the atmosphere in the women’s toilets, all muffled distraught fury. I don’t want to do that thing where the reaction of a few people (one is me) becomes a proxy for how all womanhood reacted to this play. I’m sure there are a lot more female audience members heading off into the afternoon sunshine, making plans without the slightest tremble in their voice. I feel a bit envious of them.
Before the performance: I can’t quite believe that the two biggest (and when I say biggest I mean: best funded, in the largest spaces, gathering the biggest audiences) responses the theatre world can muster to #MeToo are by men. But still, I saw David Ireland’s Ulster American at Traverse and thought there was something in it. Yes, there’s something a little glib about its relentless pacy comic energy, but its blows landed in the right places – on a hypocritical, powerful male actor who called himself a feminist while being anything but, and on the sycophantic male director who defended him. I wondered if Daughter would do the same.
After the performance: I found myself frantically searching for reviews, and remembering one of their many undersung functions which doesn’t involve shifting tickets – their ability to connect you with other people who’ve experienced the same thing as you, to debrief and decompress and (hopefully) find mirrored some of what you felt, surrounded by an unreadable, stoic audience. But apparently the show that, according to the press release, “sparked a thousand conversations” (as though you deserve a cookie for making people angry enough to talk) didn’t actually cause much real controversy. There are a lot of polite four and five star reviews. Thank god for Nicole Serratore.
About five minutes into the performance: I HATE this guy, but I know I’m probably meant to like him. Canadian artist Adam Lazarus is performing alone on stage. He started out by talking about his daughter, about how they dance together. It’s quite cute, I guess, the way he mimics her hopping movements to Everything is Awesome. But there’s something so snide and smug about him. And now he’s talking about his wife’s pregnancy and people are “aww”-ing at a narrative that, to me, seems soaked in contempt. He’s just got down on all fours and mooed like a cow, imitating his wife’s labour in a way that feels so utterly divorced from empathy for her pain that I feel it like a blow.
About 30 minutes into the performance: Oh, here we go. Confirmation that I was meant to hate him, and that this whole show is a trick: a quasi-authentic narrative of worsening sexist badness. He’s a ‘nice guy’ talking honestly about his life, about how he’s done things he’s not proud of, but in a way designed to make the audience complicit. Each anecdote goes just a little bit further, is just a little bit nastier than the last, from a moment where he restrained his daughter a little too hard, to watching violent porn, to less ambiguous misogynistic abuse. I guess, if I were to follow this performance and its intentions with a spirit of quasi-objective openness, I’d say that it’s a simmering exploration of the insidious nature of toxic masculinity, of the way that men create a bubble of normality around deeply harmful behaviour. But what if you’d seen enough of the world (weirdly, Lazarus addresses his audience as though they’re younger than him) to distrust this guy before the casual racism of his sexual adventures in Japan, before he abuses a 16-year-old girl, or gives his wife STDs from cheating on her? Or what if you already know, without needing these cartoonishly extreme examples, that men can and do get away with horrendous behaviour while telling themselves and everyone around them that it’s normal? What if you’ve experienced it first hand, and are reliving it, now, under the auspices of an ‘edgy’, ‘conversation-starting’ show?
About 58 minutes into the performance: Adam Lazarus is turning red, and writhing as though he’s in hell. Slowly, it dawns on me that this is all we’re getting. The show is nearly over. This is as close as it’s going to come to retribution. And its warped internal logic is countering 58 minutes of violent misogyny with two minutes of bouffon clowning and hackneyed Faustian lighting design.
About two hours after the performance: I hear that there’s a zine of women’s stories that got handed to some people on the way out. That can fuck right off. If you want to say it in the performance, say it in the performance. Don’t make the show’s whole feminist message a little lo-fi addendum. How deeply insulting for a man to purposely recreate the DIY efforts of women to counter male narratives, like all those optional, fragile feminist modules on male-dominated courses, or self-printed revisionist histories fighting a whole leatherbound canon.
About a day after the performance: I’ve been talking to a lot of people about Daughter. A lot of people (male and female – more male, but not all) really like it. Feminist people included. And yes, Daughter is a powerful embodiment of a spectrum of misogynistic behaviour. There is craft to it, too, in the way its narrative spirals through the years before and after his daughter’s birth. It reminds me of the famous rape culture pyramid diagram, which situates casually dismissive sexist behaviour and jokes as part of a climate which normalises sexual violence. Maybe that’s useful to some people. But it also misunderstands that pyramid’s point. We shouldn’t find dismissive behaviour towards women offensive only if its underlined in big red pen, and bookended by descriptions of ‘real’ violence which flash up in neon signs that this guy is a bad ‘un. The real work we need to be doing isn’t recreating. It’s teasing out the gradations, exploring the insidious, subtle harm done by men – men who don’t end up doing something so horrendous they need to be narratively punished in the infernal torments of bright red lighting design.
The fact that something makes you feel bad, or angry, doesn’t mean it should exist. But Daughter is doing something so perverse and infuriating that I’ve found myself fantasising about erasing it from every single programme at the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. It’s showing a man’s lack of empathy for women by having a complete lack of empathy for women. Before the final brief burst of guilt, it’s letting men chuckle through a fundamentally entertaining show that just happens to rehearse quite a lot of other peoples’ trauma. It’s punishing its female audience in the service of (potentially) telling men in the audience a thing or two. And it’s the absolute antithesis of the entire #MeToo movement. It’s responding to the catharsis of a temporary, fragile mood where women could speak out about how male behaviour affects them – about how they are subjects, not objects – with a show that silences women’s perspectives with a narrative of harm.
Daughter is on at Canada Hub (Summerhall). More info here.