Even those who had avoided learning anything beyond the premise of Daughter would have steeled themselves before attending its Australian premiere last night. A solo theatre piece written and starring Canadian Adam Lazarus, it’s billed as a deep dive into the male psyche, attracting epithets like “provocative”, “hardcore” and “incendiary” from the critics. The show’s producers have made themselves available after each performance, welcoming discussion about its themes, while Sydney Festival itself has restricted Daughter to those above 16, with content warnings on its site and staff reminding theatregoers at the door of its potentially confronting nature. First seen in Canada in 2016, it has toured consistently since its premiere, culminating in a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last August. It arrives here just as the Australian theatre industry begins to reckon with its own culture of sexual harassment and assault. It’s no surprise then if many audience members’ curiosity is tempered by wariness as they file into the theatre for Daughter.

Adam Lazarus in Daughter. Photo © Victor Frankowski

An intelligently crafted, 70-minute work, Daughter sees Lazarus’ character reflect on his attitudes and behaviour toward women, obvious emphasis given to the complex relationship with his six-year-old daughter. It begins gently enough, the performer earning laughs of recognition as he plays her favourite songs and demonstrates an endearingly childish dance she’s proudly fashioned herself. From there, it proceeds like a fairly ordinary but enjoyable stand-up routine, Lazarus recalling the circumstances of his daughter’s birth and the futility of the plans he and his wife had in place. There’s plenty of the usual jokes about panicked husbands, as well as good-natured jabs at doulas, the alternative terminology encouraged in hypnobirthing (“surges” instead of “contractions”), and the painstakingly curated playlist soon forgotten. But this gives way to more specific detail, building to a harrowing picture of how easily women can be ignored and dehumanised when the recipient of medical intervention during labour and birth.

Adam Lazarus in Daughter. Photo © Victor Frankowski

Directed by Ann-Marie Kerr, also credited as one of the show’s co-creators, Lazarus gives a highly disciplined performance that nevertheless retains a risky, unpredictable quality. The anguish he displays when recounting his wife’s difficult birthing experience helps to establish a warm audience rapport, as does his obvious charisma. But as he begins interrogating his own behaviour, the audience is soon confronted by how Lazarus’ charm and professed self-knowledge and guilt earns him significant benefit of the doubt. Experiences that may be relatable or seem excusable in isolation begin to look increasingly suspect as we’re drawn deeper into his stories. One such example is when Lazarus recounts how as a teenager he orchestrated a prank that resulted in serious injury to an unpopular, female friend. But what may be brushed off as youthful stupidity and callousness by many in the audience becomes a fraught prospect – Lazarus later admits that as an adult he considers contacting the same friend, many years out of touch, to secure mates rates on wedding catering.

That callousness unites the anecdotes he shares, Lazarus locating in the earlier, seemingly innocuous story about a prank gone wrong the excuses society provides boys and men, ultimately sanctioning much that is reprehensible. The way these stories pinball off each other and shed light on the relationship with his daughter is testament to Lazarus’ subtle script, constantly implicating the audience in his bad behaviour in small but significant ways.

Adam Lazarus in Daughter. Photo © Victor Frankowski

Much that is effective and disturbing about the piece flows from the blurring of actor and character. With ideas of authenticity in performance so prized, as demonstrated by the mystique surrounding method acting or the praise we allot to performers that draw on personal experience, it’s both interesting and disquieting to consider how much the audience might unknowingly want Daughter to be rooted in truth in order to feel moved or that they’ve witnessed something worthwhile. It’s therefore a work that requires a constant negotiation of what it means to be an audience member, particularly as it relates to feelings of complicity. What does it mean to laugh at a disarmingly human detail or a properly funny line when they’re embedded in stories about violence and coercion?

It all builds to an effective finale, with Richard Feren’s sound design and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting providing a marked departure from the more naturalistic mode already established. Though these last moments are perhaps too overtly theatrical, and undercuts some of the text’s impact, it still comes together in satisfying ways that leaves the audience with much to discuss. What you relate to or find morally abhorrent, what you are shocked by or find entirely unsurprising – these require some reflection.

Sydney Festival’s Daughter is at Carriageworks until January 13


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