The publicity material for Muncitor: All Workers Go to Heaven echoes a poster you might have seen in Moscow in the 1920s. The clean colour scheme, the dynamic diagonals, the text in block capitals, the architectural, technological imagery, and the overalled worker – with whom you are asked to identify. The politics of the show look back almost as far, drenched in the unashamed, undiluted Marxism which envisages us all as labourers in the great meta-factory of Capitalism.
Although there’s a contemporary gloss on the production, with up-to-date statistics on factory conditions, minimum wage comparisons and references to MNCs like Adidas and Espirit, essentially the premise is that we live in a grander version of the kind of nineteenth century production line that Marx had in common with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. There’s a lack of conceptual nuance in positioning the performance in our own era, since the complexity of today’s consumer capitalism – its financial structures, production models and socio-cultural experiences – are reduced to a simple pyramid of wealth. The relevance of Marxism to contemporary audiences is a topic that deserves careful exploration, but which didn’t come to fruition in this streamlined theoretical testdrive.
This principle is the basis for a piece which, we are told, is not theatre, but a social experiment. If you’re considering going to see it, you might want to stop reading now. Ten audience members become employees in a factory: seven workers, two supervisors and a manager. The workers have to pack wallets to earn credits, which the manager can then choose to spend on rewards for himself and his employees, including food, Westfield vouchers and a full torso mould (yes, he went for that one.) And that’s it: the rest of the audience watch through one-way windows, and listen through wireless headphones.
The staging conveys the simplicity of this premise very succinctly: a white, triangular room built within the studio, divided into three sections for each tier of employment. The rest of the audience sit outside on each side of the triangle, rotating every so often. Frustratingly, we still miss a lot of the action – although there’s CCTV inside the factory, it’s more of a Comment Upon The Contemporary Evils of Surveillance than for our viewing benefit.
The factory employees are given only very basic rules, and the rest is built on tacit assumptions about the ways they should behave in their given roles. This automatic behaviour, of course, is one of the big questions, and there were some juicier moments in which the workers reacted how you secretly (guiltily) wanted them to, by abusing their power over each other. The (male) supervisor insisted all the (female) workers wear the unflattering, impersonal hoods of their uniforms, even though it wasn’t a real rule, and the manager ordered noodles and Wii games whilst telling the others there was no credit to buy water.
Although us and the workers are constantly reminded on the factory tanoys that this was fiction and not real life, there was an interesting blurring of the distinction. The rewards, the sweaty conditions of the factory and the relationships formed in that climate were, after all, concrete. Moments of authenticity were produced within the frame of the experiment, such as the reactions when the workers found out about the manager’s abuses, or when they realised that a fellow worker (who’d been promoted to supervisor) had fired one of their own.
In fact, this authenticity came very close to actually breaking the frame, when one worker remarked that “this is all bullshit” and nearly walked out. In this sense, the production treads a fine line between posing interesting questions over how we react to rules in games and theatre, work and play (which are separate to those surrounding how we react to positions of power) and, on the other hand, producing a banal test cancelled out by the make-believe, ‘as-if’ quality of the whole structure. The theatrical frame of the experiment, however, meant that the employees could choose to work, strike or even not to play; for this reason it was fragile, and genuinely risk-taking as a performance piece.
Whilst, academically then, there may be threads to gather from this hybrid between performance and sociological experiment, that factor doesn’t always make for interesting theatre. The time needed for the experiment to take root made the performance very slow to start, and moments of excitement were sparse. While the participants had all the fun, and went off with the director for a post-show chat, the abrupt, impromptu ending of the experiment left the remaining spectators feeling like we’d been somewhat kept in the dark. The two-hour piece took stamina to get through, but there was no time afterwards to digest what we’d gleaned from it.
Comparisons to Big Brother – in both his Nineteen Eighty-Four and reality TV incarnations – are impossible to avoid. In negotiating a genre somewhere between thesis and theatre, the production struggles to ask questions with the complexity, insight and contemporary relevance its task demands. The result is a reduced Orwellian politic funnelled into a medium that only just escapes comparison to daytime TV.