As punning titles go, Cost of Living is a pretty good one. Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is almost entirely about the economics of being alive in America today. Statistically speaking, the four characters – Jess, John, Eddie and Ani – are more likely than most to be struggling financially: John and Ani are disabled, Eddie is African-American and Jess is the child of a Polish immigrant.
Only John, a Harvard grad embarking on a PhD at Princeton, represents an anomaly in the socio-economic system with his wealth (quite possibly inherited, although this is unspecified) granting him a very high standard of general living and – importantly, given his cerebral palsy – healthcare and support. Money, the play constantly reminds the audience, is crucial. And the impact a surplus or deficit of it has on people’s lives is almost impossible to escape.
Jess, played by Emily Barber, is hired by John (Jack Hunter) as his daily carer. Her job mainly involves physically caring for him – helping him to wash, shave and dress – although John is keen for their professional relationship to include a degree of humanity. When the massively over-worked Jess first arrives (along with helping John, she is also employed at two bars and is currently living in her car in order to send as much money as possible to her mother in Poland), John tries to engage her in small talk. He wants to know something about the person who cleans his naked body, even though Jess, especially to begin with, would rather just get on with the ‘job’.
Ani (Katy Sullivan) and Eddie (Adrian Lester) have a more complex dynamic. The separated couple are mid-way through getting divorced. Ani, as the result of an undetailed ‘accident’, is quadriplegic and living alone with the help of professional nurses who pop in during the day. In what could be a deeply sinister move, given his financial and legal control over Ani, Eddie proposes to take over the full-time care of his ex-wife. Majok’s script appears to suggest Eddie’s motives are not sinister, however, but instead powered by some combination of guilt, love and dependence (his to her, as much as the other way around).
The plot basically flips back and forth between the two pairs of characters. It focuses largely on the lived reality of their requisite set-ups as one-disabled-person-and-one-non-disabled-person. There are two long-ish scenes, for example, showing John and Ani being showered and bathed by their carers. The play is meticulous in depicting the reality of being a body dependent on another body to care for it, including all the facets of that experience that simply wouldn’t occur to people for whom that has never been the case (the entirely able-bodied, the youthful, those who have never had periods of acute ill-health or surgery etc). Little details like: what happens when a woman who can’t move her lower body or arms menstruates? Or, what does the person soaping your body do when the only un-soaped area left is your groin?
Directed by Edward Hall, the production is likewise painstakingly realistic. Microwave ovens ping after re-heating real slices of pizza, John gets his hair shampooed and rinsed on stage, a light bulb is replaced, Jess keeps getting rained or snowed on and, most disconcertingly, the smell of John’s shaving cream hovers in the auditorium like the ghost of bottled masculinity past. It feels Very American, all this hyper-realistic realism and I’m aware of my own British irritation and impatience at seeing the minutiae of existence recreated onstage. But personal preferences aside, the ‘realism’ aspect of Cost of Living is about more than a working shower on set.
On the one hand, Majok’s decision to show the monotonous daily routine of a disabled person who needs help with washing, dressing and more, feels almost – almost– radical. It forces an awareness of what ‘being cared for’ actually means not just for some disabled people, but for many elderly people too. It would, in a way, seem strange not to reflect all the ways in which daily life is different if, for instance, you use a wheelchair. One of the most subtle details of set design is a metal cage on the inside of the front door to catch the post as it’s delivered, so that John can retrieve his own letters.
On the other hand, it feels a bit too much like the story of the two disabled characters is Being Disabled. Their physical disabilities, and what they allow (but mainly don’t allow) John and Ani to do inform the majority of their scenes. And maybe that’s fine, because after all it is a play about – yes – the realities of life, economic privileges and social interactions included.
But it also presents the problem that the disabled characters in Cost of Living are defined by their disabilities, while the non-disabled characters get more traditional narratives relating to personal growth, tragedy and emotion. Eddie’s story is, at various points, that of a recovering alcoholic, a grieving widower, a lonely truck driver and a divorcee in a new relationship. Jess, in turn, is padded out with a vague backstory taking in her birth, degree and employment status. In contrast, very little is known about John and Ani. He’s obviously a highly successful scholar but his expertise or career isn’t focused on, while the job Ani used to have remains (I believe) unspecified.
To an extent I’m being unfair in expecting one play to be ‘all things to all people’. Yet it remains an important question because, as Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence’s Still No Idea at the Royal Court late in 2018 pointed out, people often have trouble envisaging storylines for disabled performers and characters. A wheel-chair user just doesn’t fit into our conventional idea of a romance or a spy thriller or whatever else. So it’s really the wider context of what is onstage, not the specifics of this play or production, that created my personal frustration at how, in this case, the story of a disabled academic is about him being disabled, not about him being a political scientist.
On a more straightforward level, it’s hard to fault Hall’s production of Cost of Living. It’s excellently performed and just, you know, solid. Really solid. It also hints at the trickier side of the carer/cared-for relationship. Despite its overriding emphasis on economics, there’s a element to this play that’s actually about all the things money can’t buy. Like love, friendship, conversation and genuine care.
Cost of Living is on at Hampstead Theatre until 9th March. More info here.