When Adam Lazarus complained about a seven-year-old boy putting his hands on his daughter at school, he was told not to cry sexual assault. “They don’t think like that,” the teachers said, “not at that age.” “But it’s power,” Lazarus seethes, recounting the incident. “It’s gendered power, and if you excuse it this kid thinks it’s OK.”
The Canadian performer made waves at the Edinburgh festival in 2018 with his controversial, gut-punch solo Daughter, which he is now bringing to Battersea Arts Centre in London. The show is told from the perspective of a young girl’s father and what starts as a charming and funny quasi-standup set quickly turns into something acidic. Over the course of an increasingly intense hour, Lazarus – dressed in fairy wings, dancing adorably to his daughter’s favourite song – unspools a brutal thread of toxic masculinity. First it’s shrugged off as a joke, then a distasteful comment, until suddenly there’s a metal rod in his hand and we’re wondering how we got here. “Are you OK that I did that?” he asks in the show, as remnants of laughter start to taste like bile.
Having trained at Philippe Gaulier’s prestigious clown school in France, Lazarus makes work that stems from bouffon, the French style of theatre with its roots in mockery. In contrast to his past performances, which involved elaborate costume and character, the father in Daughter is almost indistinguishable from Lazarus himself, and it leaves you wondering how much is true. “We had to ride the line [between reality and fiction] to be sure you couldn’t dismiss him as a character,” he says. “We were trying to get to a point where the room would say, I get it, I understand how a person could think like that.”
With his co-creators Ann-Marie Kerr, Jivesh Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, Lazarus began developing Daughter after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. “It blew the minds of Canadians, because we listened to him every morning,” explains Lazarus. Ghomeshi was acquitted in 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants.
Daughter is built from real stories, though only some are from Lazarus’s own life. Regardless, audiences frequently believe it’s all him and that it’s all true. In the Edinburgh performances, some people walked out, while lots of others refused to applaud. But silence is not the worst response Lazarus has had; people frequently ask his wife if she’s OK, some close friends believe the stories are his own, and one man threatened to kill him for suggesting men had such a violent streak.
The hardest responses to reconcile are from the people – primarily women – who have been hurt by the performance. “I don’t think everyone needs to see the show,” Lazarus says frankly, when I ask about those who reported crying in the toilets afterwards, wishing they hadn’t seen it. “The show picks at a scab and if you have a trauma or a trigger that’s in there, it’s gonna peel really bad. I don’t know how to prepare people for that.” After every performance the company hold a space to talk, led by producer Aislinn Rose. Lazarus doesn’t attend those sessions; audiences feel more comfortable without him.
Lazarus argues that Daughter is a feminist play. “Pre-Trump I think it was a warning. Now I think it’s a rallying cry.” The show, Lazarus freely admits, is an attack on men, and the behaviour we often excuse. “It seethes underneath everything. These are microaggressions everyone is part of. The ‘good guys’ have a lot of work to do.” He does the quotation marks in the air.
With thunderous impact, Daughter toys with these complex ideas of responsibility and consent, asking how we protect our daughters by talking to our sons. Lazarus’s daughter is now eight, his son five. Scared and hopeful for them both in equal measure, he paraphrases a recent article by Peggy Orenstein. “We have to talk to our sons about sex in the same way we talk about manners: often. Even if you feel like you wanna poke your eye out talking to your son [about sex], if you don’t teach them, porn will.”