Fringe Review: The Culture

Two friends enter morally grey territory in a show about an ‘unlikely victim’ of domestic violence. Janhavi Gosavi reviews The Culture at the New Zealand Fringe Festival.

CW: Domestic abuse

What appeared to be a funny rom-com centred around two lovable best friends turned out to be a questionable play about domestic violence. Set in Sydney, The Culture is the debut work of Australian female-led company Powersuit Productions. Directed by Bethany Caputo and written by Laura Jackson, it starred Jackson as Katie and Mina Asfour as her best friend Will, protagonists who are morally grey – and not in a good way.

Flatmates, singletons and co-hosts of a podcast, Katie and Will are usually inseparable. When Katie starts dating a man named Kale, it drives a wedge between her and Will, whose own romantic history is unstable and riddled with trauma. Katie’s relationship with Kale becomes increasingly abusive, and her friendship with Will is what ultimately helps her leave.

Will’s characterisation in the first half of the play is fantastic. With quick quips and a flair for sarcasm, he is the kind of guy who would show up to a costume party dressed as Lord Voldemort and insist the ‘t’ was silent. Speaking to actor Asfour about his experience playing Will, he says The Culture provided him with the authentic and rare opportunity to play himself – a gay Middle Eastern man living in Australia.

In the second half, I found Will’s dependence on Katie for his happiness to be undeniably toxic. A homebody, Will resents Katie for not spending more time in the flat and blames his own loneliness on Katie’s new relationship. Alarm bells rang in my head when Will came home from a bad date and, desperate for human connection, tried to non-consensually kiss Katie. In the climax of the play, instead of responding to Katie’s abuse with tenderness and care, he pressures her into photographing her bruises as evidence for the police. By forcing Katie to snap out of her fantasy and confront the fact that she is being abused by Kale, Will is painted as a hero of sorts. But I could picture the cogs turning in Will’s head – the sooner Kale was behind bars, the sooner Will could have Katie to himself again.

While Will’s character turns morally grey as the story progresses, I found Katie an unlikeable protagonist from the offset. Working as a marketer at a lingerie company, she dreams of being the Prime Minister of Australia. She is outspoken about political issues but embodies an indignant flavour of white feminism. Katie’s the kind of person who wishes Jacinda Ardern was the ruler of the world – her hot takes just aren’t as hot as she thinks they are.

In the opening scene, Katie rants about her genius idea for a ‘feminist’ ad, in which lingerie models throw fruit at straight men as a metaphor for “smashing the patriarchy”. I let out an audible groan. ‘Smash the patriarchy’ was a slogan that felt revolutionary to my baby-feminist self in the early 2010s. In the 2020s, I’ve grown to realise that the patriarchy must instead be carefully dismantled using an intersectional approach. Katie is well intentioned, but her feminism feels outdated and undercooked.

However, once I started looking at Katie’s character as an intentional satire of millennial white women, my audience experience became much more enjoyable. When Katie preached hollow self-love by hopping on a social media livestream to take her makeup off and put a facemask on, I laughed at what I thought was a nod to body-positivity culture. When Katie’s voicemail said she was busy “liberating the disenfranchised and giving a voice to the voiceless”, I told myself the playwright was obviously criticising white saviourism. But a post-show interview with playwright Jackson left me conflicted about the play’s intentions and whether it was as self-aware as I had given it credit for being.

Jackson tells me that she wrote The Culture to explore the stories of “unlikely victims” of domestic violence. Katie’s character was inspired by Rosie Batty, who was awarded Australian of the Year in 2015 for campaigning against family violence after her 11-year-old son was killed by his father. Then-Victorian Police Chief Commissioner, Ken Lay, called Batty the most “remarkable victim” he knew, for speaking out about her personal tragedy. Jackson explains that both Batty and Katie are “highly educated”, “outspoken”, “middle class”, and are therefore “not the stereotyped victim that you would have in your head”. It should be pointed out that both women are also white. Jackson created Katie to show that “violence transcends race, class and age”. “The fact that Katie falls prey to a man like Kale, it means that anyone could,” she says.

Like Batty, Katie courageously uses a public platform – in this case, her podcast – to share her story. She is vulnerable and brutally honest, even admitting to previously “judging women” who stayed in abusive relationships. It is refreshing to see Katie display a capacity to grow and change, and saddening to realise that experiencing violence is the cost of her character development. But this reinforces the archaic idea that survivors of abuse have a moral obligation to publicise their trauma – to be “remarkable”. And if unlikely victims “were more likely to be listened to” than marginalised women, as Jackson herself notes, they would be more likely to share their experiences.

Two things can be true at once: Katie is both a victim of abuse and a privileged white woman. Katie’s privilege means that she is more likely to be believed: by her followers, her friends, the police. Her privilege also cushions her from some of the potential consequences that come with speaking out. If future Katie lost her job because she called out her abuser, the fact that she is well educated would help her land another job sooner than someone who isn’t. And as Katie is middle class and has no dependents, she would be under less financial stress compared to someone from a low socioeconomic background who had a family to provide for.

Of course, it is true that white women can be victims of violence. As Powersuit Productions highlights, one in four Australian women experience domestic violence, and that includes women in positions of privilege. But in 2022, Our Watch, an Australian violence-prevention organisation, stated that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women report experiencing violence at more than three times the rate of non-Indigenous women.” Katie’s story is valid and deserves to be told, but Jackson’s post-show interview almost insinuates that audiences would only care about a play discussing domestic violence if the protagonist was white. Jackson’s justification for centring privileged women in a conversation about violence by calling them “unlikely victims” leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It feels like she is trying to be so woke, that she isn’t woke at all.

The fundamental problem with The Culture is that it lacks depth and nuance – not just in its discussion of domestic violence, but in every topic it broaches. This 80-minute play tries to cover friendships, disordered eating, feminism, podcasting, queerness, online dating, homophobia and social media influencing. By trying to do too much, The Culture’s depictions of social issues are only ever rudimentary, leaving much to be desired.

The Culture ran from 28 February – 4 March at the Gryphon Theatre in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.

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