In 2002, the then-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith visited a sink estate in Easterhouse, on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow. Easterhouse is one of the most deprived areas in Europe and IDS was shocked by what he found there. Until that moment, he admitted, he had not appreciated the terrible conditions in which some of his fellow citizens live, the depths of poverty from which so many are unable to free themselves, and the systematic failure of the political class to address these conditions. In what has been called his 'Easterhouse Epiphany', IDS pledged to commit Tory policy to alleviating the conditions of the poorest, the most excluded and forgotten in society, to enable all people to participate in and contribute to their communities. No one should ever be left behind. No one should suffer this way. Welfare wasn't working and it must be made to work for these people. This was compassionate conservatism writ large. Iain Duncan Smith looked broken and humbled as he left the estate. Some thought they even saw him crying.
Flash forward a decade and Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary since 2010, is indeed presiding over a radical rethink of welfare. He has introduced the bedroom tax, which means that people in the Easterhouse estate, who happen to have a spare room, but have no prospect of renting it out or selling up, have had their benefits clawed back. In 2013, IDS introduced a new policy of 'sanctioning' benefit claimants - or, put another way, cutting people's benefits altogether - if they are judged fit for work or to have failed to seek work with sufficient ardour. In the first eight months of the new scheme, 553,000 people had their benefits 'sanctioned'. These included a man sanctioned for not applying for jobs online who was illiterate and did not know how to use a computer, people with long-term physical or psychiatric disabilities who were suddenly redescribed as healthy and then sanctioned when they couldn't hold down jobs. Job Centres were urged to meet targets for reducing benefit claimants but told not to describe these as targets. The Tories boasted about the numbers of people coming off benefits, while all around the country, for the first time in decades, food banks became a normal part of the civic landscape. While the introduction of Universal Credit exploded in a miasma of ill-thought-out computer chaos, IDS railed at the 'shirkers' and 'scroungers' who want 'something for nothing'. The target of this policy is not the poor, whatever he says; it's the new Tory electorate, the self-made men and women who infuriate themselves with fantasies of welfare dependents, the undeserving poor buying flat-screen TVs and taking exotic holidays on handouts provided by the taxes stolen from honest hardworking people by a spendthrift bleeding heart government.
I thought of this Easterhouse Epiphany as I was watching Game, the latest show at the Almeida, directed by Sacha Wares, designed by Miriam Buether, and written by Mike Bartlett. The audience for Game is divided into four groups, and ushered separately into the theatre. On your way in you are given a set of headphones and you sit in a small 'hide' facing a row of windows with the blinds down and three television monitors. The play begins as the blinds go up and we see that we are peering into a two-storey open plan house, where a couple, Carly and Ashley, are looking round. We slowly come to understand that the house is part of a scheme; this couple will be given the house and paid a small income. But for what? In parallel with this, David is being interviewed for a job in some kind of hospitality role ('the clients, when they get here, they'll expect a safe, professional, five-star reception'). These two worlds come together in the second scene; Carly and Ashley have moved in and now paying clients have the opportunity to shoot them with tranquilliser darts. The house is the centrepiece of a theme park, a rich man's urban safari, where the poor are there to be ogled at, humiliated and shot. We see a group of city boys, a rowing elderly couple, a birthday outing, someone from the Katie Hopkins school of cultural altruism, and the disenchanted owner of the complex all taking aim at the poor. Some years into the project, when Carly and Ashley have had a growing boy, he too becomes a target. David, meanwhile, feels worse and worse about his role in this 'entertainment' which brings about his own vertiginous personal decline.
The show is not literally or even metaphorically about Iain Duncan Smith or this government, though I couldn't help reflecting that the real story of the Easterhouse Epiphany is that IDS peered into the homes of the poor, wreathed in piety, only to punish and humiliate them to please the wealthy.
Game is a fascinating condensation of a number of different elements in the culture: not just the 'targeting' of the poor and the lionising of the rich, but the century's obsession with home ownership, Cameron's recent display of magnanimity in proposing starter homes for the young, the voyeurism of reality TV, internet pornography, Benefit Street, Gamergate, military adventurism, and the ubiquity of images of sexualised dead young women (in Nordic Noir and beyond). In a way it's a companion piece to Bull, in which two alpha office workers bully and humiliate their colleague for their own benefit and, well, just because they can. Bartlett and Wares are tapping into the brutality of the current culture, its blaming and stigmatising of the poor (welfare cheats), immigrants (welfare tourists), and southern Europeans (welfare addicts). Game is both a fantasy and an all-too-plausible picture of the imminent present.
But it's also a performance about theatre and its audiences. There's been a strong post-war tradition of putting the poor, the marginalised, the excluded on our stages. It starts, at least, in the late 1950s with Shelagh Delaney and Theatre Workshop's taste in new plays and with Wesker's Trilogy at the Royal Court, and it continues through Bond's work, the D H Lawrence trilogy in the late 1960s, through Matura and Keeffe and Dunbar, and it continues right up to Ian Rickson's period as AD of the Royal Court and beyond. (I remember going to the Court in early Autumn 2001, when the main house had Leo Butler's Redundant and upstairs Judy Upton's Sliding With Suzanne. As I waited in the queue to pick up my tickets, the man in front was asking what was on at the theatre. 'Downstairs,' said the Box Office assistant, 'we've got a gritty play about poverty, teenagers, family breakdown, and underage sex'. 'And Upstairs?' asked the punter. 'Yeah, pretty much the same,' she replied coolly.) There are excellent reasons for bringing the lives of the excluded and marginalised onto the stage. It forces the typically rather well-off Royal Court audience to pay attention to lives it might usually not encounter. It gives a platform and a voice to their concerns and fragilities and world view and way of life. But it's more complicated to think what the (well-off) audience gets from this. Is it noble social concern and a spur to more highly developed altruism? Or do we get some atavistic pleasure in seeing people suffer? These questions are raised very sharply by this production. At one moment, a visitor to the hide is Ashley himself. He has saved up to buy a session that will mean he can guarantee that he will not be looked at; he just wants a little unPanoptical time, but he pleads with David not to look either. David is reluctant; he has his instructions, but he turns his back anyway and the blinds come down. But the video monitors stay on, leaving us with a choice: do we also metaphorically turn our backs or do we continue to watch?
This is of a piece with the Almeida's investigations of audience and spectatorship over the last year - Mr Burns, Little Revolution, Our Town, and The Merchant of Venice all, in different ways, draw attention to the nature of our spectatorship. Mr Burns by the connections it required us to make between the three acts; it and Merchant of Venice forcing us to negotiate their compelling, challenging juxtapositions of high and low culture; Little Revolution in the breaching of the theatre, the location-specific juxtaposition of Islington and Hackney and the complicated tautologies of Alecky Blythe's verbatim presence; Our Town in the overlay of British accents and the US location, and then the shift from symbolic to iconic signification in the third act. That shift was prefigured a couple of months earlier by Tim Crouch's Adler & Gibb at the Royal Court (well, actually, everything by Tim Crouch), which reminds me that a reflection on the nature of spectatorship and representation has been a driving force in a lot of interesting recent work I've seen, from James Macdonald's elegant directorial sidestepping of graphic violence in his production of The Wolf From the Door to Ellen McDougall's Idomoneus at the Gate both of which treated its audience as intelligent people who could watch a piece of theatre creatively and imaginatively. The Belvoir Wild Duck at the Barbican was, like Game, a play in a box, which, in itself, draws attention to acts of spectatorship. There we watched the characters as if they were lab rats, the windows protecting stage from auditorium and auditorium from the state, until, in the final heartbreaking minutes, the actors appear directly before us, without protection, for a scene of unbearable emotional nakedness and grief. I thought also of a couple of Frantic Assembly shows: Rabbit - mostly performed in a perspex box - and Peepshow - we sat looking into a house - which then makes me think that the whole 'fourth wall' tradition of theatre since Naturalism is all about us peering, in complex and contradictory ways, into other people's houses. Here, in Game, we're almost always entirely voyeurs, looking in; it's a one-way view - us watching them - except for the rich visitors who become our avatars in the game and once again implicate us in the cruelty.
This is the most precise thing about Game, the way in which it manipulates and foreground and troubles our desire to watch, our habits of watching. I'm not usually very impressed by theatre that tries to 'implicate' its audience, which is usually a way of lazily generalising about who we are. This show, however, gives us choices and offers us dilemmas which we have to decide upon, resolve, hold together throughout. The moment-by-moment ethical dilemmas presented by the play are real because, even if we're not actually partaking in the fiction, we still have to think whether we want to look at semi-naked actors engaging, for instance, in fairly realistic sex acts. There's a deep equivalence between the decision in the fiction and there decision in the theatre and I found myself, time and again, nervous of my own reactions, checking, as we say now, my privilege.
Where the play is less precise is about the fictional game. First, I found the idea that such a game would ever exist implausible. That's not a killer problem as I don't think there would ever be Rollerball or a Hunger Games or a Sex Olympics but I can still enjoy the idea. I do think some have atavistic and violent feelings towards the poor and would like to express that in shooting at them. I think the play fits well into a current tradition of presenting our near-future as teetering on the edge of nihilistic violence (Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Wolf From the Door, Pomona, Men in the Cities even). In those plays, the violence is incredible but presented seriously; it's a kind of challenge. But Game is different; it seems to have a commitment to the plausibility of its world. Through the guide character of David, we are supposed to have a real-world horrified reaction to the fictional world's game. But this doesn't work, first, because the idea is basically implausible. I don't think it's a failure of imagination on my part, or any excess of sunny optimism, to think that the outcry at such a proposal would make it impossible to run it. But also, as the play goes on, we become aware that the Game is losing money; people aren't signing up to do the shooting. So is Mike Bartlett saying that we're heading to a world where we would shoot at the poor? Or that we wouldn't?
And then there's the character of David. There are at least two Mike Bartletts. There's the Mike Bartlett who writes about bad people: Bull is a good example, but also Contractions and Love Love Love and more. He's brutally accurate about horrible horrible people; he's unflinching in his depiction of them. He doesn't care about redemption or giving them flashes of goodness. He just shows them in all their disgusting, bullying, complacent, horror. He's remorseless and precise and unsentimental. And then there's the Mike Bartlett who writes about good people, in plays like Earthquakes in London, 13, or even King Charles III. This Mike Bartlett is visionary, messianic, broad, naive, beautiful, inspiring, and utopian. The good people are noble, brave, they make an impossible stand against the dreadfulness of the world, they seek positivity where all around is cynicism. I like both of these Mike Bartletts very much; I think they are each magnificent writers but I'm not sure the two men get on very well. The positive Mike Bartlett makes negative Mike Bartlett seem thin and cynical; the negative Mike Bartlett makes positive Mike Bartlett seem wishy-washy and sentimental.
Here, we have negative Mike Bartlett taking responsibility for writing the visitors to the Game and positive Mike Bartlett in charge of the David story. But the David story is a slow burn, about the gradual release of feeling, in which we need to piece together David's story from flashes and hints and moments; it makes scenes with visitors to the game seem rather superficial - they start nasty, stay nasty, and just unfold in their nastiness. The characters are, by comparison with David, rather one-note and can sometimes feel like stereotypes. This didn't matter in Bull, where the horrific pleasure is watching the remorseless logic of the bullying, but here it feels like we 'get' the visitors within a moment and the scenes lack dynamic.
Conversely, the brutal power of negative Mike Bartlett's scenes strip the power of the David scenes. It encourages us to doubt his motivations; why does he start having qualms? What part of 'you'll be running a game where rich people get to shoot tranquilliser darts at the poor' didn't you understand? And if we don't get his 'journey' we certainly aren't going to buy the ending. SPOILER ALERT: David waits until Ashley and Carly have left, then goes into the abandoned house and, haunted by images of his own tour of duty, shoots himself. SPOILER OVER. This is a real muddle. Is it the game that has triggered his memories? In which case, the game is kind of accidental (anything might have triggered it). What happened on the tour of duty? We never find out, so it's hard to know if that's the real story of his mental breakdown. Why does he feel he has to kill himself? If it's guilt about his participation in the game, well, why didn't he understand the game from the start; if it's a more general mental collapse, then it's not necessarily the game that should be blamed. To be honest, it felt entirely imposed on the play, which I think might have been stronger left as the working through of the dynamics of a cruel theme park, with David keeping his concerns to himself.
I think there's something a bit undecided at the heart of Game. The production is wonderful; Miriam Buether's design is stunning; the video and sound design (borrowing the Katie Mitchell team) is pin-point sharp; Sacha Wares has wrangled all of these elements with tremendous assuredness; and Bartlett's dialogue is splinter-sharp as always. But the solidity and clarity of all this only go to emphasise that underneath this building there are shallow foundations. I'm guessing that Game is not destined for a major afterlife - purely because of the logistics of putting the thing on - which is a shame, because I think there's a grimly exciting political and theatrical idea here and another iteration of the play might bring that out more fully.