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Nadine Holdsworth

No Optimism, Just Getting By: Inviting empathy through representations of precarious Labour in Contemporary British Theatre
Whilst Jill Dolan’s seminal Utopia in Performance (2005) offers an invitation to regard the potentiality of theatre to rehearse a ‘better world’, it might also be possible to think through the ways that theatre draws attention to degraded lives and precarious living as a way of prompting critical reflection on the social, ethical and political logics that define neoliberalism. Over the last decade there have been several attempts to theatrically represent the fragile existence of a new strata of workers Guy Standing refers to as the ‘precariat’, people who are defined by their unreliable income, job insecurity, an inability to exercise agency over the conditions and patterns of work and a lack of occupational identity. Yet, as Valerie Mainz and Griselda Pollock forward ‘the mere representation of someone ‘at work’ cannot satisfactorily signify the relations in which that labour is performed, valued, used or circulated’ (2000: 6). By reflecting on several works including Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring (2014) and Atiha Sen Gupta’s Counting Stars (2016), this paper will consider some of the theatrical strategies being employed, from an aesthetics of mundane realism through to immersive staging, to highlight the transformations and reconfigurations evident in the experience of work and labour in the twenty-first century. If, as Marx suggested, the conditions and actuality of human labour becomes side-lined or erased through the elevation of products within commodity festishism, then a refocusing on the very practice of labour is a more obviously political intervention. Theatrical representation, in this case, becomes a means through which calls for an urgent reordering of social values, for a renewed future, become manifest.

Nadine Holdsworth is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick. She is author of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre (2011), Theatre & Nation (2010) and co-author of The Ecologies of Amateur Theatre (2018). She edited Theatre and National Identity: Reimagining Conceptions of Nation (2014) and co-edited an issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on “Theatre, Performance and the Amateur Turn” (2017). She is a currently working on a monograph Theatre, Nation and Social Abjection for Palgrave.