With the current societal hatred for bankers and
their sky high bonuses, we may put aside any thought for the young individuals
who throw away any chance for a personal life, with interpersonal support and
relationships, in order to live and breath the industry - fighting each other
and their own sense of self in order to be 'compensated' by the money they can
earn in lieu of anything we would call a life. The well-known demands, pace and
stress of working in the City don't do anything to stop the competitiveness
that there is to work there, even as an unpaid Intern - and the freneticism of
this fight for a professional over personal role in life is explored in
Engineer Theatre Collective's production of
Unusually powerful and visually enthralling
Developed from conversations with people who work / intern in the financial sector - and recalling memories from media stories of suicides by overworked young people who seemingly saw no other way out of the cycle - the story is recognisably based on truth. Four of the successful 100 or so Interns who have been through a rigorous interview process (by arguably arrogant interviewers who pull in nepotism and 'oh-so-clever' questions around 'tail risk' and job commitment) are drawn together as they embark on the 10 week internship as strangers.
They create, or feel forced into, some proxy of friendship. But from the outset, whilst pertaining to watch each other's backs, they immediately dismiss the idea of getting too personal with the information they share; no matter that some share a 'home' (or rather a place to shower instead of sleep) and some share an attraction. There is a need in all of us for human interaction, but the constant pull of work and never far from the surface competitiveness of the situation here means that any true humanity is pushed aside in order to avoid appearing weak and to 'win the prize'.
The scenes that show the events taking place are realistically scripted, often funny and often tense vignettes, but are not the key to this piece. They play out the story of the four as they work hard on mainly menial tasks, attempt to play hard, turn to drugs so as not to fall behind, and make small mistakes that feel magnified into life-ending tragedies. The pacing in the many, usually short scenes is generally very slow and underplayed finely by all four of the cast - allowing the increase in stress, and the impact that has, to be subtly evoked by tiny touches. There are moments that last less than a few seconds which imply so much: an undercurrent of unstated jealousy when one beats a deadline; the real panic when one thinks they have lost their security pass; the lack of interest shown when one is asked why they are working in the dark at 5.30am; the violence when one beats another in the lift (though seemingly only in her imagination). All the performers are strong in their subtlety - though so much subtlety does drain the energy of the piece - with Joseph Sentance as Tim particularly standing out with a marvellously naturalistic performance of a very confused character that is immensely watchable in the way he draws us in.
But where this piece comes alive is with the juxtaposition to the 'quietness' of the scripted performances with the movement style, visuality and music that sometimes links the scenes and sometimes becomes them. The music in particular acts more like a film score than incidental theatricality - this is not about filling time in the background, it's about creating dynamic, building pace and evoking emotion. Whilst somewhat annoying at first with the overuse of snare drums and what seems to be a glockenspiel - the music soon becomes more important than the dialogue to increase their (and our) levels of anxiety. The 'square mile' set is marched around by the cast when they change props, clearly in sight, lit with shadow and brightness to represent their inner demons and writhe around when they are trying to keep a pace with the world around them.
It's visually and audibly striking and the company's Lecoq influences are clear. But whilst the stillness of the scenes work well in contrast to this, they do pull down the energy so that it makes it difficult for the audience to maintain our own. However, this is a compelling style of theatre that is worth seeing - my hope is that their next piece uses more of the physicality and musicality to develop what is clearly the company's skilled point of difference, and what most creates and titillates the audience's interest.