REVIEW: The Fence by Fleur Murphy

In the middle of the night, a woman is woken by the low hum of a car outside. Or is it a truck? She’s already sleep-deprived from chasing her four-year-old around all day and dealing with a distant husband, who is monosyllabic at best. Whatever is happening next door at this hour is not what she needs.

Crack. The sound of splitting wood. She looks out her window to see the fence between her place and the neighbour’s place is being torn down. Without discussion. Without notice. But she doesn’t feel up to confronting anyone about it. She hardly knows the people next door. They haven’t been there that long and they have a newborn that keeps them up most of the night as well.

The house the woman lives in has been in the family for generations. She and her husband could buy it from her parents or the family could sell it and they could find a place in better condition. But with real estate prices as they are, they’ll have to move a long way away or accept they need to move into something much smaller.

Meanwhile, her marriage has become strained because she’s taken a night-fill job at the local supermarket, while he works a full-time job. They are ships passing at dinner time and she’s finding it harder and harder to communicate with him.

Next door, though, this house that is now exposed to them, their back and front yards bleeding into one-another, holds a darker secret that the woman can only glean from raised voices and a young wife and mother who seems to lock herself outside a lot. What is happening in there and how much can she help to make things better? Or is any intervention going to make things worse?

It’s hard enough that the man of that house has taken it on himself to tear down the adjoining fence. How could she find the strength to confront him over his abuse?

Fleur Murphy’s new play, The Fence, is a monodrama that weaves two stories throughout – an observational domestic comedy and a confronting story about domestic abuse and how much we should get involved in other people’s lives. The woman’s story of her own family and marriage, though under some strain, is nothing compared to the emotional and physical abuse that is happening over the other side of the, well, where the fence once was.

Developed with performer Louisa Mignone, The Fence is the perfect blend of actor and writer. Murphy’s writing is poetic, comedic and full of gorgeous and troubling detail; Mignone brings this woman fully to life.

Mignone’s performance draws us into this woman’s life, while also colouring in some of the characters at the local kinder, and the kids working at Woolies, and the smooth real-estate-agent who is so close to selling the woman’s family home. Louisa Mignone’s performance is startling in its honesty; warmly humorous at times and compellingly intense in others.

Director Alice Darling finds the right balance between the comedy and the drama, guiding Mignone through a play about domestic violence that can be genuinely funny at times. The contrast between the mundane details of the woman’s life and the awfulness of her neighbour’s story requires a strong directorial hand – lest the audience think the play is making fun of deadly serious things.

Karine Larché’s set design is constantly compelling – the moving pieces of the woman’s house, compared to the stern façade of the neighbours’ creates an ever-changing tableau. Clare Springett’s lighting is warm throughout, throwing the occasionally menacing shadow or a kaleidoscope of colours from the neighbours’ always-too-loud television.

The Fence is a remarkably confident work, drawing on difficult subject matter but never shying away from it. And when it gets closer and closer to the realisation that there may be no easy answer, and no superhero to save the day, it plays deftly with the ambiguity of what the woman might do next. Murphy’s play knows there is no simple solution and the woman at the centre needs to learn and relearn that over and over again. Even if she’s never content with no answer as an answer. 

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Look over The Fence at Northcote Town Hall until August 20th

Photographs: Cameron Grant (Parenthesy)