Beyond Caring at the National
The National Theatre stages yet another insightful and thought-provoking production, this time the work of Alexander Zeldin and produced by the Yard Theatre, highlighting the harshness of zero-hour contracts on those surviving on the thinnest breadline.
Beyond Caring tells the story of four agency workers with a two-week cleaning assignment at a meat processing plant. Grace (Janet Etuk), a disability benefit claimant, has been declared fit for work, despite suffering from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) is verging on the edge of homelessness, and Becky has a child to support. Supervisor Ian (Luke Clarke) follows the carrot-and-stick approach, promising full-time positions and beating them with poor performance assessments. He’s the sort of supervisor who lurks in every corner of the job market, micro-managing and treading on others to massage his own self-importance. Clarke plays it well: aggression simmers under a passive facade.
The workers jump when Ian says so, whatever the humiliation. Becky is refused a day off to see her child and Grace struggles with the work, her pain obvious and her desperation even more so. But Ian is indifferent; their struggles are not his problem. Employment laws are flouted and all that matters is getting the job done. For Susan, losing a pound in a broken coffee machine is a heartrending catastrophe. For Grace, losing the job means losing her income.
The beauty in Beyond Caring lies in its simplicity. There is no major plot, there are no big monologues – in fact the actors speak very little. There is, however, great acting with silences awash with meaning. The production eschews melodrama for genuine misfortune as five lives are played out in fragments of real time. They clean. They break for lunch. They clean again. It gets light, they go home or to another job. We watch these everyday lives, lives we would ordinarily ignore, and it is fascinating, gripping – testament to the writing and directing. The action is taut with subtext, the characters revealing themselves through their actions, much as in real life. Moments of kindness and cruelty reverberate to reveal a disingenuous culture with one worker pitted against another, forcing insidious behaviour and grinding them down like the mincemeat chewed out by the machines they clean.
Some say a good play needs a good plot; Beyond Caring does not follow the rules. It’s not a good play – it’s a great play. A play about life, survival and real emotion, and one that would have got a gold Stanislavsky seal of approval.
Beyond Caring is on at the National Theatre until 16th May 2015, for further information or to book visit here.