We all know the basic facts about zero hours contracts: the headlines, the numbers, the controversy. Wisely, Alexander Zeldin and his cast don’t attempt to repeat any of this. Instead, this knowledge flickers in the background of the piece they have devised together, its political intent very much implicit but no less furious for it.
Beyond Caring depicts just five individuals caught in the ruthless cycle of modern employment and unemployment. Three women arrive for a fixed term cleaning contract at a factory, carelessly dispatched by temp agencies. One has been forced into work by Atos; it is hinted that another might be homeless. Working alongside them each night as they scrub down floors, walls and machinery is full-time cleaner Phil and boss Ian, who compensates for the disappointment of his job with small and occasionally cruel displays of power.
In presenting us with these determinedly ordinary characters, Zeldin asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. It’s also a form of spectatorship that takes a while to settle into. The punishing night shifts of the play unfold in uncompromising hyper-naturalism; silences, stutters and stumbles are all preserved, presenting us with human interaction in all its awkwardness and inarticulacy. Harsh, anaemic fluorescent strip lighting illuminates both audience and stage, thrusting us into the same drab and unforgiving world as that inhabited by these workers.
Falling into step with this sluggish, unpolished delivery demands an initial outlay of concentration, but it’s an approach that cumulatively builds in its power. By stripping away theatricality as we are accustomed to it, Zeldin focuses an audience’s attention; deprived of the dramatic conventions of naturalism, we are temporarily disorientated and made to look – really look – at these seemingly undramatic scenarios. While most stage realism aspires to a tidied up version of reality, this aspires to reality itself, jolting it out of its usual trappings and slamming it down in front of an audience.
As the piece goes on, repeating the relentless routine of shift after shift, the fine, accumulating detail becomes quietly devastating. Each performance is minutely textured, slowly amplifying the nuance of every last shrug and smile. A single gesture becomes infused with tragedy, while the corporate absurdities of a staff appraisal (“I am absorbed with ideas – agree or disagree?”) are as crushing as they are comic. Layered with Josh Grigg’s excellent sound design, which like the performances builds to an almost shattering intensity, the effect is one of blackening despair.
And yet. Somewhere in amongst the desperation and the drudgery and the alienation, there are still traces of tenderness. The title – at least in one sense – turns out to be something of a red herring; far from being beyond caring, these are individuals longing to care. The state might not give a shit, but they painfully, heartbreakingly do. And perhaps it’s there, in the foolish optimism and fleeting moments of connection, that we begin to glimpse just the tiniest splinter of possibility.