Saturday, 16 July 2016

Beyond Caring – HOME, Manchester

[seen 14/07/16]

Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring is essentially a very straight, naturalistic play which shows time spent at work by three women with zero-hour agency contracts cleaning a factory – Grace (Janet Etuk), Susan (Kristin Hutchinson), Becky (Victoria Moseley) – as well as the one (male) cleaner on a permanent contract, Phil (James Doherty), and their immediate team leader Ian (Luke Clarke).

I say “essentially” as, very sparingly, Zeldin – who also directs – interrupts the detailed naturalism of his text with lighting or sound interventions – here a flickering of the lights, there a sudden blast of music on the sound system. Otherwise, it is nearly Dogme95 theatre-making, save for the scene breaks and the inauthentic location (although, my God, Natasha Jenkins’s set and Marc Williams’s light are grimly effective in transforming HOME’s often rather unprepossessing studio space into something grimly utilitarian, alien, and discomforting).

There is one inexplicable “plot denouement” moment very close to the end (the Deus Sex Machina, if you like), that I could have happily done without; it added nothing, and risked subtracting rather a lot, I thought.

Generally speaking, though, the piece impresses through its steady refusal to really conform to dramatic diktat. Not so much postdramatic theatre as “a-dramatic”. Nothing really happens. And nor should it. If anything, it’s probably still too eventful a piece to be truly effective, and the scene changes do offer slightly more comfort than the audience has any right to expect.

From all the buzz around the piece/pre-publicity, one gets the impression that the play is *about* zero-hour contracts, the pushing of the disabled back into work, and about the in-work poverty trap. And, yes, all those things are touched on in the piece. And about as heavily as something trying to remain realistic can hope to. (The problem with near-realism is that people in reality don’t tend to explain their socio-economic circumstances all that clearly, or if they do, in the context of a candid conversation with a co-worker, the chances are that they’d do so far too explicitly for drama. Here we’re stuck in a sort of agonising half-way house, that perhaps consciously pays attention to both the fact of its being “a play” and its attempt on “real-life”.)

Coming to Beyond Caring after seeing 12 of the most forward-looking pieces of European Theatre imaginable at Baltoscandal I will admit that it took me a bit of time to tune back into the idea that all five performers were going to be pretending to be someone else somewhere else for the full 1hr30. After you’ve stepped away from naturalism for a bit, it really is the strangest thing to walk back into. [As an aside, I also think it’s the belief that naturalism is “normal” or any sort of a reasonable “default setting” that’s the reason much British theatre fails. Naturalism only really works as an interrogated abnormality, cf. Mitchell’s best work. Here it eventually does succeed, partly because of the Herculean efforts of the cast to make it work, and partly due to a similar effort on the part of the audience.]

The other reason that Beyond Caring works, though, is because there’s so much more than “naturalism” at work in the piece. Really, it’s more of a meditation than a play. Consciously and conspicuously so, I think (though it might not self-describe as such). It contains an awful lot of silence. Dead time. Not the dead time of the audience, though, but of the characters in the world-of-the-play. And through that silence, we are forced to think about their situation. It’s why the bare bones of the “story-telling” is so effective. We fill in more, and more effectively than being lectured, from our own knowledge and understanding of their situation, and perhaps our own experience of similar working conditions, if not necessarily the same overall precarity. It would take someone with a severe compassion bypass to suggest these working practices are even remotely acceptable.

Now, set against all this meditative compassion, there is a certain amount of character detail with which one could quibble. Is Phil’s fondness for Dick Francis novels and Phil Collins-era Genesis really in keeping with his character, or are they slightly snooty and wildly out-of-touch ways of painting his social class? I don’t know, so I can’t judge – maybe they’re verbatim lifts from someone someone met – but, well, I dunno. They seemed slightly too “knowing” for my taste.

Overall, though, this is a sobering piece. Yes, it’s problematic that tickets cost more than an hour’s minimum wage (in fact, minute-for-minute, it’s probably about the same ballpark figure), but then, *probably* this sort of thing is only informative for people who don’t live it. There’s an intesresting conundrum as to what anyone in one of these jobs would get out of seeing it, very possibly a sense of validation and recognition, and a quiet sense of satisfaction at having something approximating their life dramatised (after all, who’s immune from wanting to identify with things they see in the theatre)? Maybe there’d be some itchiness around the fact that people are getting paid more to pretend to do the work than the people who actually do it, but I don’t think the piece itself ducks this issue especially. It’s not hidden. It’s a piece about injustice. It can’t solve *everything* just by existing, and it wouldn’t be better if it replicated the appalling working conditions of the characters.

As has been widely discussed, all the more urgently post-Brexit, if theatre is to stake any claim to urgency as an artform, then the characters of this play are clearly a constituency it needs to reach. And, as the play makes clear, it won’t do that by charging them entry. So, yes, very good as far as it goes, but maybe it should also tour towns without theatres and play for free. And see how it stands up then. Maybe that’s the acid test we need to be asking of all our theatre. Yes, let it be whatever it wants, but take it out of its concrete bunkers and take it to the people who can’t afford to come to it.

No comments: