Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 12.01.00 PM

Not in our Neighbourhood | Auckland Arts Festival 2016

Written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, Not in our Neighbourhood is a moving social commentary on the ongoing systemic violence in our society. Packed into an hour long production, powerhouse performer Kali Kopae takes us into the lives of three women who have sought shelter at their local refuge and, drawing upon their stories, offers quintessential snapshots of their varied experiences.

McCaskill’s script does well in exploring the ramifications of physical violence and its associated traumas and although not as robust as it could be it also makes a commendable attempt to unwrap the multifaceted ways in which this vulnerability is exploited by those individuals and institutions with power.

The premise is that a young filmmaker named Maisey decides to do a documentary on two women who are currently clients at the refuge. The Safehouse is run by a brash but pragmatic woman named Moira who introduces her new guest to Sasha, a loud potty mouthed mother-of-five who revolts against the system; and Cat, a quiet older woman who has been sexually assaulted by a family member. Both have volunteered to be part of the project. A third woman, Teresa, is the wife of a well-known businessman and has suffered all forms of abuse in silence for close to thirty years. After a recent incident she too finds her way to the Safehouse.

Kopae plays all five women, each with their own distinct personality, rhythm and physicality. A talented performer, she and McCaskill have created a work that is slick, polished and fine-tuned – yet almost to the point that it loses a sense of genuine empathy with its characters. A strain of quasi-realism holds the drama on the brink of the confessional narrative and then plunges into a series of clichéd drama school techniques to show change of character and location. In some ways these little flourishes and occasional over dramatisation detract rather than add value to the work, and over the course of the hour do little to delve into the complexities of each scenario.

Framing the stories as a documentary also seems to do little more than bookend the production – there is little we are shown (or told) about Maisey’s involvement or growth or indeed even her role other than that of a voyeur during her time spent at the refuge – and we know that simply cannot be the case. Too many little touches make this a pretty rather than a gritty and sophisticated package.

The stadium seating at Q Loft certainly has come back into favour and Jennifer Lal’s lighting design is delicate and evocative but if we are blurring boundaries and worlds where we have a tripod and no camera and an invisible assault that is visually powerful, why then is there an extra male actor who arrives midway to perform the very predictable husband-in-denial-I-was-also-abused character?

The content is unequivocally important – these conversations addressing violence need to take place and together McCaskill and Kopae have made efforts to create visibility and discourse on this often marginalised subject. But the form and presentation of this material also needs to interrogate the quiet violence that is taking place all around us; acts of abuse that are ignored, unaccepted and unexpected – not just the clichés or the familiar tropes that are regurgitated.

Kopae is worth seeing in action and it is a vitally essential work that deserves ongoing support and development – it’s just not quite there yet.