Beyond Caring:  Stories of an invisible working class

Written by Sebastian Whale on 27 April 2015 in Culture
Culture
A play about zero hour contracts is set to begin a month long run at London’s National Theatre. Its writer and director Alexander Zeldin talks about this type of work and his aim of getting top Tories in the audience.

Having first opened at The Yard Theatre last year, Beyond Caring focuses on the experiences of five workers on low-wage zero hour contracts over a two week period at a meat factory.

The drawn-out time period is a deliberate tool exploited by its writer and director to portray the “mind numbing” boredom associated with the work the characters endure and the insecurity attributed to it.

It all began when Alexander Zeldin, 29, was handed a copy of The Night Cleaner, a book by French author Florence Aubenas illuminating the precarious world of temporary work without a defined contract of employment in northern France.

Inspired, Zeldin embarked to explore life under a zero hour contract, a form of employment that has risen to prominence under the coalition government. After signing up with a temp agency, Zeldin was sent to work as a cleaner at a bank, alongside trying in vain to get a job to “sparkle clean” Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

He says: “When you sign up with a temp agency you’re completely disposable – you never get hired and you never get fired. You are living in this constant impermanence, intransience, and I thought that state is really important to describe.

“Nobody is awake to the fact the two million new jobs in the UK is not two million new jobs. It is two million people living in insecurity.

“What kind of world is it to think that’s ok, that’s right? In the name of what - in the name of economic competitiveness? It’s bullshit.”

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While carrying out extensive research, Zeldin encountered worrying examples of people on zero hour contracts facing sexual harassment, bans from talking at work, being forced to sleep on park benches in-between shifts and receiving wages as diminutive as £2.50 an hour.

While these incidents may not be as “dramatic as being beaten”, he contends that “it’s another form of violence that’s more subliminal”.

It is this aspect that Zeldin wanted to set the play against; exploring the emerging phenomena he refers to as “emotive labour”.

“Companies now don’t just want our muscles like they did in the industrial times; now they want our emotions and personality as well.

“Describing about how you love, how you desire, how you hope in those very specific conditions felt really pertinent and something I was drawn to as a theatre writer and as a person.”

It is, ostensibly, a statement in and of itself that the National Theatre chose to run the play focusing on such a divisive topic during the general election campaign. Zeldin believes this is not a sheer coincidence of timing.

“The National Theatre has made a really clear and I think quite bold decision to put on this piece right in the run up to the election. After all, who is, at this moment, being shown to reflect an idea of what our society is as we’re deciding who’s going to be in government?

“Are we going to put the Tories into power, and what consequence does that have to our sense of community? Do we think that politicians are there to serve the interests of the whole of society or first the interests of the vulnerable?

“These are questions that can be asked, legitimately, without any political viewpoint.”

Zeldin (above) is most animated when discussing members of David Cameron’s Cabinet. He is partuclaly scathing towards culture secretary Sajid Javid, who he argues has not “got an empathetic bone in his body”.

Maria Miller, Javid’s predecessor, went to see the play when it first ran at Hackney Wick’s Yard Theatre. Zeldin believes Miller was moved by the message of the play and says he would like other Tories to be in the audience when it runs at the National Theatre.

“I think she was affected by it. I hate everything she stands for politically, but I don’t have anything against her personally. I spoke to her very briefly, I just said hi.

“I would like Sajid Javid to come and see it. I would like David Cameron to come and see it. I would like Iain Duncan Smith to come and see it. Hopefully it would appeal to something in them.

“I’m not saying they’re inhuman…  But when I look at them I think they’re living in a very PR world and I think Iain Duncan Smith probably thinks he does care and is right about what he’s doing. But I think he’s wrong, I think his policies are not right, to do that to people.”

Despite his condemnation of senior Conservative figures, Zeldin does not claim to be affiliated to any political party.

The play’s title itself, Beyond Caring, is deliberately “double-edged”. At first glance it is a slight towards politicians, a comment on their lamentable approach to low wage workers. On second viewing, it is a state of concern to the point of excess.

For Zeldin, this was his exact aim. He does not believe theatre should be “didactic”; instead it should invoke an organic audience reaction that is unique to the individual.

“I don’t like theatre that is didactic – there’s not a story in the traditional sense in this play. There is a very constructive story but it’s not going to feed you what to feel. I think that’s a form of dictatorship.

“Everything on that stage, if it works, is a chance for you to make your heart and your mind up about it.”

Zeldin believes cuts in public subsidies to the arts in the UK have been “pretty savage”. He himself earned a meagre £10,000 a year up until six months ago, a salary which the union Theatre Directors UK says to be the norm among the trade.

The playwright believes further cuts will results in the arts becoming increasingly dominated by those who can afford it, which he says will be a “tragedy” and greatly impact diversity within the profession.

Despite this, Zeldin believes the argument for further investment in Britain’s culture is “incredibly convincing”.

“If you look at this building, the products that are in the West End that are touring around the world, that’s a result of public subsidy. The argument for public subsidy is incredibly convincing. On the one hand you have got success and on the other hand you have got the need for something to be diverse and alive. To do that you need to invest in it.”

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Iain Duncan Smith got into hot water last week by bemoaning the fact that zero hour contracts were not referred to as “flexible hours contracts”. His comments were criticised by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, who said he lives in a “parallel universe”.

Zeldin does not claim that having a flexible job is a “tragedy in itself”. The playwright believes that flexibility is not the only aspect that needs to be taken into consideration.

“Zero hour contracts and things that are not defined as zero hour contracts but are of the same ilk, flexibility, availability, whatever – this is a kind of euphemism for precarity.

“The thing is that when people are being offered jobs and those jobs are only on the terms of zero hour, it’s not only about the flexibility it’s about the pay. Pay someone £8 an hour – it’s quite a big difference over a day, or a week. Pay someone £9 an hour, £10 an hour; is that such a big sacrifice?”

At 29-years-old, the Oxford graduate has no qualms over expressing his viewpoints and has been granted a stage of some repute from which to do it.

It is a story he was naturally drawn to, and one in which he felt compelled to share.

He says: “All that you can do as an artist is look at what’s in front of you and express what you see.”

 

Beyond Caring runs at the National Theatre from 28th April – 16th May. Tickets are available here.

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