The past six months have taught me that nostalgia is a wonderfully adaptable emotion, ready to paint any old shit from the past in charming pastel hues – even the perma-grind of gainful employment. The hungover scrabble for work-appropriate clothes? Wow, how nice to have something to dress up for. That piss-smelling tunnel at London Bridge Station? Ahh, an Alice-in-Wonderland-worthy rabbit hole of delights. The commuter crush? Truly, an invigorating moment of risk-free togetherness. The first time I saw work.txt I wasn’t particularly in love with ‘having a job’ as an abstract concept, but as mass layoffs hit pretty much every sector, that ambivalence feels like a luxury.
Work.txt is a show about work, that – appropriately – gets the audience to do the heavy lifting. It replicates the sense of togetherness that comes from pulling together to perform a task, even as it makes the nature of work itself feel more and more problematised and futile.
At its original run at Vault Festival in March, that ‘work’ was reading out loud from a script projected onto the brick back wall of the stage. Sometimes one audience member would read alone, sometimes instructions asked certain segments of the audience to read together – people wearing glasses, for example. It felt like a church service, the mixture of stumbling reading aloud and earnestness, overlaid with something haunting and magical. Its narrative takes you on a journey through a single working day. One that’s disrupted by a worker with a very 21st century role (a drafter of brand social media posts) who lies down in the foyer of their office and refuses to move, reason unclear. They become an installation, a provocation, a trigger for people around them to question their own approach to work.
Reimagined for the era of home-working (or for many, no work at all) work_from_home has evolved into something more biting. Instead of getting the audience to read from projections, it makes beautifully designed use of all the mechanics of Zoom. Sometimes, the show takes over your screen, with its artfully retro digital soundtrack and graphic design plunging you into a witty, offbeat world. At other points, the chat function nominates audience members to speak in turn, their glitching face visible to the other audience members as they read the script, usually with surprising confidence and fluency (there were a lot of unemployed performers there the night I participated).
Playwright Nathan Ellis has substantially rewritten his text; it now centres on a person who refuses to leave a Zoom call and just freezes. It’s harder to feel the impact of this (in)action, when remote working makes it so much easier for people to just drift away. But the scenes around it have gained in power; what was once a section set in an art gallery is now a much more pointed-feeling conversation between a theatre usher and an artistic director, pointing to the furious tensions between senior management and precarious, easily-dispatched casual workers. His text plays with and savours new additions to the language like ‘essential worker’. It doesn’t always fully connect with the constantly-changing current moment but it’s impressive that he’s done so much to make this narrative speak to now, rather than letting it be a backwards-looking time capsule from the era of commutes, Pret, and busy-busy-busy.
Work demands focus. It demands being at the right place, at the right time, wearing the right clothes, being in the right mindset. It feels like it’s really hard to do good work at a time of persistent strangeness and wrongness and uncertainty, when the structures that bring us together have been worn away. And the same is true of watching a performance.
What’s really interesting about work_from_home – and other livestreams that ask for audience interaction – is the way they work against that strangeness, putting you in the metaphorical room and keeping you there. Zoom holds you accountable as an audience member. You can’t wander off or send a text – and if you slurp your tea, everyone else will see you doing it. Much like going to work, the prospect feels a bit daunting at first, but I came away energised and buzzing with ideas.
Humanity’s relationship with labour is a huge topic – one of those big fundamentals like religion and love – and although work_from_home stirs up so many interesting thoughts, there’s an extra twist of the knife that this laconic, wry text doesn’t quite go for. Instead, it’s meditative; it zooms in and out in dizzying shifts in scale. It considers individual dilemmas, but before things can get too messy it puts them at a distance, like single, beautifully twinkling windows in an 100-story office block.
Behind the beauty of shared endeavour lies the uncomfortable reality that work can quite literally kill you. It raises your blood pressure, robs you of sleep, and takes away the time and mental energy you need to live healthily (at which point the government blames you for not cycling to work and then using your 45 minutes of daily hours of down time to stew a bargain pack of turnips). The pandemic has given me an extra two hours each day – ones I used to spend commuting, and which can now go into reading books (without anyone’s armpit in my face) or cooking proper food from scratch or having the kind of proper long conversations I used to feel too stressed for. That time shouldn’t be a luxury. And being given it overnight has been enraging, as well as relaxing. Isn’t it terrible that the technological advances that were meant to free us from work have instead trapped us in ever more bizarre and alienating forms of labour? How can we be spending longer working than ever, when mechanisation and AI means there should be less to ‘do’? And why are we allowing whatever leisure time we do have to feel more and more like work, self-documenting and self-marketing at the behest of social media companies that profit from our labour?
work.txt is a reminder of all the work we never needed to do, and all the other more important work that’s been left undone. And that feels extra-poignant now, as so many people realise that their working lives have meant – essentially – devoting years to climbing a tall and spindly tree, one that came toppling to the ground one night in March. You knew it was precarious, but not that its roots were so shallow.
Work.txt is streamed via The Place, Bedford, from 17th-21st August. More info and tickets here.
This is the second piece in Exeunt’s Redux Review series, which invites writers to talk about performances across multiple encounters; one a pre-lockdown live staging, one in livestream form. To read them all, click here.