Faith’s gone elsewhere. Charity’s checked out. Hope is all that remains for the characters in Alexander Zeldin’s new play, which uses its setting in a poverty-stricken community to explore the consequences of David Cameron’s Big Society, and its free market ideal of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism. Zeldin’s last play, Love, 2016, was set in a bleak hostel over Christmas. Before that, in 2015, Beyond Caring grappled with the impact of zero-hours contracts on a set of workers in a meat factory. This latest work is set in another place that will feel familiar to Zeldin fans, taking place in a dilapidated community hall whose potholed roof the council refuses to mend. It takes us to the land of austerity cuts, under-resourced mental health services and a dying social care system. And it’s normally the people who are affected the most, Zeldin is saying, who have to pick up the pieces and support each other.
Take Hazel. We learn very little about her because, since it was her idea to provide free food in the community hall, along with choir practice and the like, she also unofficially takes on the role of being everyone’s therapist. But Hazel is overwhelmed by inner conflicts, which actress Cecilia Noble brilliantly teases us with through little grimaces here and there and hidden moments where she holds back tears. She’s weighed down by Susan Lynch’s chaotic and wayward Beth (surely grappling with PTSD and anxiety), who struggles to win back her daughter from social services. She’s caught in the middle of the battles between Bernard and youngster Anthony who quarrel over who suffers the most. And she’s simply worn out by newly-out-of-jail choirmaster Mason’s newbie angst. She has no time for herself. At first, it seems this is the point. “Who cares for the carers?”, I said rather glibly to a colleague at the interval, before also mistakenly naming Zeldin as theatre’s answer to filmmaker Ken Loach – but on crack AND with his finger pressed firmly on the slow-motion button in the editing suite. Mistaken because not only is it impossible to imagine Loach on crack, but also because Zeldin’s work is more like the Italian neorealists (Tree of Wooden Clogs anyone?). Like them, Zeldin has a real aesthetic approach and like them, he wishes to portray life as it really is; but unlike Loach, he doesn’t point the finger. Which is why my earlier question about who cares for the carers is not Zeldin’s point either. Not really.
Zeldin’s documentary style is so finely detailed that it often feels like sitting in a cafe people watching; or it would, if it weren’t for the moments where Zeldin draws our attention to his conceit, and raises contradictions. I found myself full of anger at the callous treatment of Beth, which started long before she became a parent. Or indignation at the fact no one has anything to eat, including the two possibly-malnourished children. But the play does nothing to develop these feelings, to engage us in some political action, or even to give any kind of opposing voice to the bureaucracies that cause such despair.
Instead, you have to look at your own rising sense of frustration to see what Zeldin is doing here. What he does is create an environment with some sort institutional framework around it (albeit one that’s endangered). He shows the people who are struggling to live there and sort it out; then, he finds a way to transcend their reality. He is not asking anyone to make a value judgment on what poverty is. He is not asking anyone to say “Well, this is not my experience so it doesn’t count.” He is asking audiences to see and acknowledge such people, to have compassion for them even if they self-victimize (who doesn’t). We need to really see Beth’s slow desperate dance around Mason (where it is clear from the onset she is manipulating him for her own gains), or the long unspoken struggle with the council to protect the building, or Karl’s (sometimes) painful invisibility even to everyone in this room. Is it enough to just watch? Zeldin has openly admitted that he does not believe that theatre can change the world. What I think Zeldin is doing is creating moments that will come back to haunt us tomorrow, a month away, five years away. And maybe then these remembered moments will help us.
And there is something intrinsically compelling about the moments that Zeldin is producing. I can’t say what it is apart from the fact that these moments have truth in them somewhere. And the truth comes to me through my own experiences of being, over the years, in meeting places like this – from working with people who hear voices, people who are drug addicts, and homeless people in centres. It rests in the banal familiar moments – Mason’s shy and anxiety-ridden attempts to lay out chairs and tables for the group he has not yet met, or Hazel’s exhausted sinking into a chair, too tired to speak, unable to communicate her own fears. There is always one person whose needs go unmet. It’s almost as if Zeldin throws down a challenge: can we be curious enough about this world to care? Can we throw aside all our assumptions about what poverty-stricken struggle is? Being curious is to be brave and free (to paraphrase the director’s uncle, Theodore Zeldin) which in a way, is what these characters are with each other in this play. It is all they have got. Yes, they are bound by social entrapments, laws, regulations, which hideously deform their lives. But in their own world and group, they have found a certain freedom with each other. And this is the hope and the way forward and the way out. A way of gaining wealth where ordinarily only poverty exists.
Faith, Hope & Charity is on at the National Theatre until 12th October. More info and tickets here.