Looking at poverty across time and space, writer-director David Byrne’s play Down and Out in Paris and London is inspired by the 1930’s memoir of the same name by George Orwell as well as the book Hard Work by journalist Polly Toynbee. In an attempt to show the daily toils of the urban poor today, Byrne’s staging seamlessly flashes between Toynbee taking on minimum wage jobs in an effort to expose the rigid benefits system which keeps people impoverished today and Orwell struggling to find employment and keep himself afloat in Paris in 1928.
The parallels are apt and this is a richly drawn and well-executed endeavour but as portrayed in the play Orwell was poor because his cash was stolen and he only had to reach out to his middle-class family to get more. Toynbee (casually mentioning she can see the social housing block from her house garden) sets out to write a book about what the minimum wage world looks like today. The perspective of the narrators and the play left me wondering, is poverty tourism the best way to get us to focus on the injustice of penury? Both our narrators are dabbling in destitution and admit they are coming to this world as outsiders.
Yet their observations of life on the edge show how dehumanizing, agonizing, and painful the daily grind of life can be when you are starving and scrimping to survive. We see Orwell, faint with hunger, walking miles for days with his Russian émigré friend Boris in an attempt to get a job working in a hotel kitchen. Similarly, Toynbee risks her small daily benefits budget on travel fares to cross London only to arrive to find the job she was to apply for did not exist.
There are moments of Kafka-esque logic that should rightly infuriate the audience about the cruel system of modern benefits and demonstrate the inescapable Möbius strip of cyclical impoverishment.
Byrne has his able cast doing double-duty between these two time periods sometimes switching accents (not always convincingly) in an instant. He leaps through time with stage visuals mimicking cinematic wipes, scenes in fast-forward, and swirling cuts. The staging is highly effective at quickly communicating the issues and doing so in a dynamically compelling way.
But it is a choice to give us the voices of the temporarily and self-inflicted poor rather than those who live this every day with no way out. And maybe some people need to see themselves in this scenario to recognize the plight of the poor. Maybe they have to watch their surrogate in this endeavour, Polly Toynbee, be snubbed by someone she knows because she’s wearing the uniform of a porter. And maybe that’s enough of a lesson for most.
But I bristle at the notion that we must see ourselves on stage to have theatre be meaningful. It only furthers an already troubling issue in representation on stage and what voices we choose to elevate over others. This is a mediated experience and though artful, it left me more educated and than moved.