Guy Howie reviews Beyond Caring, a new play by Alexander Zeldin, which portrays the conditions of workers in modern day, zero-hour Britain – a new normality where millions live a precarious existence, cut off from stable or even regular employment, a living wage and a union that can fight for them.
“I’m not political,” writer/director Alexander Zeldin tells me before one of the preview performances of his new play. “I just write what I see.” I have never seen a work of art as definitively political as Beyond Caring. Its portrayal of a grim scenario, now all too real for millions working in Britain today, cannot help but lay bare the political lines being drawn in society. Both funny and humbling, at once touching and detached, the play delves deep into the cruel world of sub-contracted menial labour and unapologetically brings out the truth.
Slavery exists here in the 21st century – perhaps not as the law defines it; but in every hardship endured by the four exploited protagonists of Beyond Caring – Becky, Susan, Grace and Phil – certainly. In every expression of abject poverty, from the toilet roll they steal to the despair as a broken coffee machine swallows a pound. In everything which divides them each from their fellow workers, from fewer hours to their slave-driving agencies, one of which fails to pay up their pitiful wages until days after they were due.
Modern times; Dickensian conditions
Zero-hour contracts, as Socialist Appeal has previously explained, are designed to capitalise on high unemployment figures, taking on those desperate for any sort of wage and subjecting them to working and living conditions akin to those in Victorian workhouses. As supervisor Ian dryly observes in one scene of the play, “If you can’t do it, I’ll find someone that can.” When, on the other hand, the zero-hour cleaners make a reasonable demand – to know their rights to a number of working hours, or to know when they’re getting paid – they are consistently brushed off with the cursory response, “Talk to your agency,” which they are well aware holds little meaning. The boss of the factory where the cleaners work has the upper hand when there are more people who need work than he has jobs available.
This “surplus-population” is the same advantage for the capitalist which Marx refers to in Capital. In the age of zero-hour contracts and the vast accumulation of wealth, the exploitation of an overpopulated labour market extends to a total lack of training in the workplace, as is the case in Beyond Caring. The workers are given a brief demonstration of an industrial-size vacuum cleaner before they begin their employment, and it is clear that one of them doesn’t know how to use it, while later they are overworked cleaning machines which they admit, “We haven’t been trained for…” This is of no concern to the boss of the factory, Richard, who is never seen, although his presence is always felt. He wouldn’t dream of forking out on extra training for staff, wasting hours which could be spent cleaning; if something goes wrong he knows that there are plenty of others desperate for a job who could easily replace his employees.
The Tories may boast about a recent reduction in the number of unemployed; what they’re not so quick to mention is the number people working in these barbaric conditions of casualised labour, not even being paid enough to get a roof over their head or to get a bus to and from work, as the play articulates poignantly.
The power of the working class
In spite of their cold working environment, the four cleaners share attempts to make the best of the situation. They are afflicted by their own particular hardships. Susan is seemingly homeless; Grace has rheumatoid arthritis, but has been cleared for manual work by her agency ATOS – which was famously embroiled in a scandal with the government’s Department for Work and Pensions several months ago for doing exactly that to hundreds of thousands of disabled people – so must work even harder to keep up with the others; Phil suffers from depression and isn’t allowed to see his daughter. With heroic optimism they find ways around them: Phil reads his Dick Francis novel aloud to the delight of the others, while he and Grace record themselves singing happy birthday to his daughter. Meanwhile, when Ian tries to join in the camaraderie, he invariably finds a way to bring the conversation down, often using the arbitrary end of a break time to get out of it. The class distinctions between him and the others are horribly exposed, and crystallise the real power that working class people hold in opposition to their bosses, whatever the workplace.
Beyond Caring uncompromisingly opens a window into the working lives of some of the most deprived employed people in Britain today. On a sparse set of the factory floor, its actors reflect these lives painstakingly and fill the air with bristling class tensions. We are in the throes of zero-hour Britain, a new normal where millions live a precarious existence, cut off from stable or even regular employment, a living wage and a union that can fight for them. Beyond Caring gives a snapshot of that reality so authentic and with such intensity that it leaves the audience in cold shock.
The final scene intensifies the labour to an extreme as an eerie background drone reaches a crescendo. When the lights fade, no one should be left in doubt of the conclusions to be drawn. In Britain today we must fight for an end to the barbarism of zero-hour contracts, linking this fight with the struggles for full employment and a real living wage to unite the whole working class. In an age of seemingly unending austerity, these demands can only be met by taking the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and implementing a nationalised planned economy under socialism. There are few better adverts for revolution than Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring.
Beyond Caring is playing at The Yard Theatre, Unit 2a Queen’s Yard, London, E9 5EN. 8pm every night from Tuesday 1st to Saturday 26th July.