Telling Stories

Written & Directed by Chris Goode. Cast Michael Fenton Stevenes, Kelda Holmes, Christian Roe, Gwyneth Stron, Cathy Tyson, Lawrence Werber

The other night, I got sucked into a general election coverage black hole. Sat in bed, clicking through article after article, eyes fixed wide open when I should have been asleep. I was – I am – terrified. Then, a day or so later, I read this by George Monbiot on the train, hands shaking a little with fury. So much – climate change, the housing crisis, extreme inequality – is fucked, and the media is worrying about what Ed Miliband looks like eating a sandwich.

Likewise, there’s been a lot written about election theatre in the last few weeks and months. And yes, there is a lot of exciting political theatre that’s been programmed ahead of the country going to the polls. But amidst all the uncertainty and spin and sly manoeuvring, what leave more of an impact are those reminders of who the outcome of today’s vote is really going to impact upon. It’s the theatre about people, as much as the theatre about politics, that I find lingering in my mind.

I’m proudly voting Green today (a privilege, I confess, of living in a Labour ultra safe seat and not having the agony of worrying about letting in the Tories by splitting the left-wing vote – fuck first past the post, by the way), but Owen Jones’s argument for supporting Labour – especially in marginal constituencies – is pretty persuasive on this point. As he puts it, there might not be a huge gap between Conservative and Labour, but a hell of a lot of people fall into that gap. Increasingly, it looks as though the coming days are going to be a scrappy, close-fought fight, and the real winners or losers won’t be those sat in Parliament, whatever side of the House they end up on.

Take the characters who populate Beyond Caring. Since Alexander Zeldin and his cast started working on the show a couple of years ago, zero-hours contracts have become a key election issue, but Beyond Caring isn’t really “issue theatre”. It’s just about people. Weary, ignored, cruel, tender, stubbornly hopeful. People making the best of a shitty situation, cleaning up – literally and metaphorically – the mess they’ve been landed in.

Three cleaners on zero-hours contracts work a relentless 14-day cleaning job, alongside disillusioned full-time worker Phil and needlessly cruel night-shift boss Ian, venting his frustration in small displays of power. Ultimately, though, they’re all people who have been let down, forgotten, left out of the “aspiration nation”. But none of this political commentary is explicit. Instead, the hyper-naturalistic texture of Zeldin’s production simply puts us in the same room as these people, watching as they lead their precarious, unremarkable lives. “Just pay attention,” the show seems to be saying. Just look.

A memory: I’m about to cross the road outside Euston Station when I notice a man appealing to passersby. They all ignore him. I walk over, awkward, asking if I can help. He needs money for somewhere to stay tonight but he feels as though he’s running out of options. I listen. He tells me his name. I tell him mine. I try to offer some feeble advice, but honestly I don’t really know what support systems – if any – there are for him to access in the short term. I have to leave, so I give him what little cash I have on me and tell him I hope he finds somewhere. It’s not enough.

I cry, quietly and inconspicuously, all the way to my destination. Guilt itches at me – why didn’t I stay for longer than those few minutes? why, so often when I’m walking somewhere in a hurry, don’t I stop at all? – but mostly I feel a sort of helpless anger. All the talk, all the policies, all the posturing, have suddenly become a sharp kick in the stomach.

But then I think about the inevitability of that moment dissolving into the texture of my day, slowly melting into all the other experiences and conversations and worries. I think about the luxury and privilege of forgetting. I think about how I’m already turning that encounter, that man’s life, into a narrative. I wonder if that makes me just as bad as those who ignored him.

And I think about the long, wounded howl of Men in the Cities.

Tone-wise, Stand is perhaps as far from Men in the Cities as Chris Goode’s practice gets. After I see the show at BAC, Hannah Nicklin suggests that it’s the latter’s gentle counterpart; they’re two different sides of the same coin.

Men in the Cities is angry. Exquisitely, excruciatingly angry. It’s the raw, bruised cry of rage that is sometimes the only response to the world we live in. Rip it all down and start again. The same energy that’s channelled towards destruction in Men in the Cities is directed into positive, life-affirming action in Stand, be that campaigning against climate change, fighting for animal rights, or simply raising children with the strong sense of justice that allows them to take a stand in turn. All of those who share their stories of standing up for something acknowledge all that is wrong with the world, but they continue nonetheless.

Although Stand is a collection of individual narratives, gathered from people in Oxford, I’m struck by how communal they all feel. None of these stories are about us, say the six people sat on stage. It was him, it was her, it was all of us. It feels apt to be sat listening to these stories of action and community in BAC’s Council Chamber, a room soaked in the history of its local people, in a building whose motto “Not For Me, Not For You, But For Us” has taken on new meaning in recent weeks.

Confronted with just how fucked up the world is, it’s easy to feel guilty or helpless or both. My conscience is constantly pricked by the need to do more, while my anger is deflated by the feeling of being too small to make a difference. Handing out a few leaflets for the Green Party, or signing a petition, or spending a couple of minutes talking to a homeless person on the streets – they all feel like miniature, cowardly acts, ways of soothing that itchy conscience without really doing very much. Even the much bigger, much braver acts described by some of the individuals in Stand are just tiny drops in a vast ocean.

But there is something, however small, in stories. Watching Stand with Hannah, it reminds me of a moment near the end of her show A Conversation With My Father, in which someone suggests that what she is doing – telling stories – is the real way to initiate change. It is, at the very least, one way. Stories are how we shape our lives and our place in the world, so if we tell those stories differently then maybe – just maybe – we’re somewhere on the way to acting differently.

And there’s something about who gets to tell their stories and whose stories are told for them – or not told at all. On the same day as seeing Beyond Caring for a second time, I go to an afternoon performance of Turning a Little Further, a show devised with local female carers as part of the Young Vic’s (brilliant, as far as I can tell) Two Boroughs project. Partly inspired by Happy Days, recently in the main house, it’s a shifting portrait of women up to their necks not in sand but in other demands and responsibilities that weigh just as heavy.

“We have not given anyone a voice,” insists the short programme note, “we have simply allowed those voices to be heard.” And that’s the sense you get from the piece, which is filled with this wonderful, poignant, ecstatic cacophony of voices. It’s also properly beautiful – all glitter and soft coloured light and flowing, joyful movement. At one captivating point, bodies shoal and move as one mesmerising mass under a low amber glow; at another, a swing becomes a simple symbol of freedom and play.

It’s difficult too. “I’m choking on my own heart,” says one woman – a line that sticks in my own throat. Often, the struggle of just navigating daily routine is painfully felt, as is the indignity of being swept aside by government and society alike. What’s also felt in the room, though, is the sheer joy of this space of creation and escape, a space that feels increasingly under threat. “This,” I want to shout, “this is why theatre matters.”

Together with Beyond Caring, it’s a sharp reminder of what’s at stake in the fight ahead of us – today, yes, but also in the days after that, and the days after that. So many of the women in Turning a Little Further talk about being invisible, about not being heard. I don’t want to be part of a society where those voices are left to fade away entirely.

Finally, because it’s the sort of day when I either have to be a bit idealistic or collapse into tears, I’ll be singing this in my head on the way to the polling station.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

“The Director as God is Bullshit”


Originally written for Exeunt.

At times, Alexander Zeldin sounds more like a composer than a director. In his rehearsal room, “rhythm” is a popular word, as is “beat”. I’m watching Zeldin and his cast return to Beyond Caring, the hyper-realist snapshot of precarious labour that is transferring into the National Theatre’s temporary theatre following its premiere at The Yard last year. The show is an act of making visible – or perhaps audible. Zeldin stages the fractured daily routines of a group of zero-hours cleaners, with a musicality that draws as much on silence as it does on sound. It’s the ordinary textures of life woven into a theatrical score.

“I think in life there’s already quite a lot of theatre,” Zeldin says later as we sit in the foyer of the National Theatre, watching the everyday performances of passersby. “The theatre is a chance to be ourselves.” This is what’s so disorientating and eventually disarming about Beyond Caring, which refuses to fit human behaviour inside the stage conventions we are so used to seeing. “I think if you don’t do something that’s disturbing – I mean that in the best possible sense – you don’t really have an opportunity to be honest,” the director explains. “You need to create the conditions in which we can really exchange and we can really look at life.”

Zeldin struggles, though, to express the thinking behind this way of working, an approach that is perhaps best witnessed through the work itself. “If we could grasp it, there’d be no need to make the theatre, right?” he points out. I suggest a distinction made by Katie Mitchell between realism and naturalism, two words often used interchangeably to describe theatre. But according to Mitchell, realism is a mode based on recognisable conventions – representations of real behaviour – while naturalism attempts to precisely replicate that behaviour as seen in the world beyond the auditorium. Beyond Caring is in a similar mould, taking care over the minute gestures, pauses and phrases that make up a human life. A head is turned just so; a silence is rehearsed over and over.

Zeldin quotes a Chinese proverb: “don’t think about doing, just do”. Just doing, though, is “a very powerful, very complicated thing”. He continues: “everything I’m trying to do is just creating the conditions in which we can just do. And then we sculpt.” In creating these conditions, his role blurs between writer, director and member of a devising company, hierarchies constantly forming and dissolving. “The distance between the writer and director I feel is a little artificial,” he reflects on the slicing up of roles in much British theatre-making. “If you’re a director, inevitably you want to go and write, and if you’re a writer inevitably you’re going to want to write in the language of presence, space, rhythm.”

His role in the creation of Beyond Caring has strayed into both territories. While it was Zeldin who originated the idea and came into rehearsals with material he had already written, the show is very deliberately described as “written through devising with the company”. The piece has been shaped and reshaped over the years in close collaboration with a group of actors, as well as drawing on extensive research that started with Florence Aubenas’s book The Night Cleaner, an undercover investigation of precarious shift work in France.

For Zeldin, though, research is about experience and individual human interactions rather than about presenting a series of facts. “If you present your research on the stage, why don’t you just give the book out?” he says. “Because it’s going to be more clearly expressed.” Instead, the “meticulous” research undertaken by Zeldin and his cast – including stints working as cleaners – is subtly integrated at the level of character. One of the workers they met, for instance, talked about sleeping on a park bench, planting the seed for a character in Beyond Caring who sleeps in the factory where she works. “I’m not putting a park bench on the stage – that’s the verbatim version,” Zeldin distinguishes.

This, he insists, is where the politics of the show is located: in its form. Beyond Caring is about a controversial political issue – one that is proving to be a key point of debate in the pre-election hubbub – but its take on zero-hours contracts invites audiences to simply look and empathise rather than to engage with a series of facts and opinions. Inevitably, though, the current political context will colour its reception. “It’s a little awkward for me,” Zeldin admits, “because I’m doing a play about zero-hours contracts in the lead up to the election. I care passionately about the political issues at stake, but I hate politicians and politics.”

But he maintains that the style of the piece remains the most important expression of its politics. “I think it’s Tim Crouch who said that theatre happens in the head, not on the stage,” he says by way of explanation. “That’s such a powerful statement. And it happens in the heart; you just touch people, it’s not very complicated. I think we overthink things too much. Theatre is a precious space where we don’t need to overthink.”

Alongside music, another key aesthetic influence on the piece is photography. Zeldin explains that one of the initial inspirations for Beyond Caring was a series of photographs by Paul Graham – “it’s a kind of tribute, in a way” – and in the show he hopes to capture life in the same way that early twentieth-century photographers were able to. “August Sander, who was a photographer in the 1920s, used to go round before people knew what a camera was, so he’d point this thing at them and he’d capture them unaware,” Zeldin tells me. “There’d be a moment when you’d really see somebody, because they didn’t know how to behave in front of this strange contraption. That’s exactly what I’m interested in trying to do in the theatre.”

Achieving this involves precise and extended work with actors. “For me the root of everything I’m doing is the work with the actor,” says Zeldin. The question he is constantly asking of the performers he works with is “what’s at stake?” and his ultimate ambition is for them to achieve “presence”, a word he finds difficult to define. “What does it mean?” he asks, referring to the cliched statement that someone has stage presence. “Let’s be more specific. I think presence is something you can learn. You can develop it, you can train it.”

Beyond Caring, for instance, has been a long time in the making, and Zeldin has been working with some of the actors in the show for five years now. He characterises their process as completely collaborative, describing all of the performers as “massive contributors” to the show. “Hierarchy is dead,” Zeldin states unequivocally. “The director as god is bullshit, it doesn’t work. We’re in a room, we’re making it together, it’s got to be like that otherwise it’s a waste of time.”

“Theatre has to be alive in every second,” Zeldin continues, unforgiving in his expectations of the art form. “How can you do that? You need to create the conditions in the work where there’s a constant interrogation.” He recalls the experience of assisting Peter Brook – his greatest influence and inspiration as a director, as he stresses more than once – and being told to change something in the production every night while on tour. “It was about finding a readiness, an alertness.”

None of these working practices find a natural home in the British theatre industry, with its freelance culture and typically short rehearsal periods. For this reason, Zeldin – who is currently associate director at Birmingham Rep – aims to one day start his own company. “My ambition is to keep a group of actors together for ten, fifteen, twenty years,” he explains, brushing aside the audacity of this aspiration. His answer to practical obstacles is, perhaps, the best expression of his approach to theatre-making: “I think you have to do things that seem impossible.”

Photo: Mark Douet.

Beyond Caring, The Yard

Beyond Care

Originally written for Exeunt.

We all know the basic facts about zero hours contracts: the headlines, the numbers, the controversy. Wisely, Alexander Zeldin and his cast don’t attempt to repeat any of this. Instead, this knowledge flickers in the background of the piece they have devised together, its political intent very much implicit but no less furious for it.

Beyond Caring depicts just five individuals caught in the ruthless cycle of modern employment and unemployment. Three women arrive for a fixed term cleaning contract at a factory, carelessly dispatched by temp agencies. One has been forced into work by Atos; it is hinted that another might be homeless. Working alongside them each night as they scrub down floors, walls and machinery is full-time cleaner Phil and boss Ian, who compensates for the disappointment of his job with small and occasionally cruel displays of power.

In presenting us with these determinedly ordinary characters, Zeldin asks us not to watch as audience members, but to look on as fellow human beings. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. It’s also a form of spectatorship that takes a while to settle into. The punishing night shifts of the play unfold in uncompromising hyper-naturalism; silences, stutters and stumbles are all preserved, presenting us with human interaction in all its awkwardness and inarticulacy. Harsh, anaemic fluorescent strip lighting illuminates both audience and stage, thrusting us into the same drab and unforgiving world as that inhabited by these workers.

Falling into step with this sluggish, unpolished delivery demands an initial outlay of concentration, but it’s an approach that cumulatively builds in its power. By stripping away theatricality as we are accustomed to it, Zeldin focuses an audience’s attention; deprived of the dramatic conventions of naturalism, we are temporarily disorientated and made to look – really look – at these seemingly undramatic scenarios. While most stage realism aspires to a tidied up version of reality, this aspires to reality itself, jolting it out of its usual trappings and slamming it down in front of an audience.

As the piece goes on, repeating the relentless routine of shift after shift, the fine, accumulating detail becomes quietly devastating. Each performance is minutely textured, slowly amplifying the nuance of every last shrug and smile. A single gesture becomes infused with tragedy, while the corporate absurdities of a staff appraisal (“I am absorbed with ideas – agree or disagree?”) are as crushing as they are comic. Layered with Josh Grigg’s excellent sound design, which like the performances builds to an almost shattering intensity, the effect is one of blackening despair.

And yet. Somewhere in amongst the desperation and the drudgery and the alienation, there are still traces of tenderness. The title – at least in one sense – turns out to be something of a red herring; far from being beyond caring, these are individuals longing to care. The state might not give a shit, but they painfully, heartbreakingly do. And perhaps it’s there, in the foolish optimism and fleeting moments of connection, that we begin to glimpse just the tiniest splinter of possibility.