As you cast your vote in this week’s elections, you should think of Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring. Developed at The Yard and now playing at the National’s Temporary Theatre, it’s a set of portraits of people who try and make it work, whose lives are governed by structures, institutional and political, that constantly seek to undermine their own humanity. This is not a show about politics; it is a show about workers, isolation and the repercussions of that isolation; it is a show about what precarity really looks like.
Under the dim, flickering neon lights of a meat factory, cleaners Becky (Victoria Moseley), Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) and Grace (Janet Etuk), arrive for a fourteen day shift; their temp agencies haven’t told them much, so they rely on permanent worker Phil (Sean O’Callaghan) and manager Ian (Luke Clarke) to guide them through the work. Grace has just lost her disability allowance but tries to do her best; Becky is a fearless fighter and Susan, isolated, quiet and committed.
What we encounter are the discrete, draining machinations of managerial culture. Zeldin’s sharpness lies in the distinct differentiation between Phil, the permanent worker, and the three female cleaners, whose temp status places them in an even more precarious position. This is a play about zero hours contracts, but it’s more importantly, a play about how the culture of competition, of empty managerialism and devastating regulation constantly seek to de-humanise, to render people invisible.
It’s a starkly observed and acutely sharp performance; it enacts these conditions and the pervasive ideology of the neoliberal workforce with clarity and authenticity. This is not dry observation, however; this is an approach that is constantly searching for portraiture, for psychology without the impediments of dramatic narrative; there is a lot to fight with and for in the performance.
Beyond Caring is a performance that is marked equally by dialogue and silence; those moments when work is being undertaken – and Zeldin goes to great lengths to really engage with what this labour actually is – are packed with tension; the personal circumstances only creep their way through in delicate, minute ways, like an interrupted happy birthday song, or an angry, loud shout.
I felt at times, Beyond Caring changed its relationships to the people we were observing; the most intense, gripping moments are those when they speak for themselves, not when the performance tries to speak for them. This runs the danger of a kind of theatrical observation that distances rather than brings us closer, that others an experience.
Yet undoubtedly, Beyond Caring is a gripping, informed, quietly brilliant portrait of inequality, of the way in which systems can render us disposable and ideologies mark our own quest for a more humane life.
Alexander Zeldin Interview: “The Director as God is Bullshit.”