Imagine you’ve got a pretty great English degree, a good amount of work experience and you had a part time job in retail. Pretty set for graduate employment, right? Well, no. And then while you’re committed to searching for any job you can, your benefits are cut. You got sanctioned because you went to an obligatory CV advice course, which was at the same time as you had to check in with the job centre. You Dad disappeared in Chile; now you’re disappearing, one little piece at a time.
Or, you have a severe anxiety disorder. Often you have no idea what people are saying to you. You’ve worked in the past, but the illness now means you are sometimes incapable of even basic conversations. The government will help you out right? Wrong. You’re banked in the fit for work pile. In the meantime, you think you understand, you might get some job seeker’s allowance. At some point. Maybe.
Maybe, in fact, you’re employed on a zero hours contract. You know the work is pretty unstable, but the shifts should be pretty regular and you can just about make ends meet. Then your partner leaves you. You’re left ‘between addresses’ because you can’t afford to pay the bedroom tax and a food bank becomes your only option.
What is left to lose? What is left to gain? And when will equality and justice truly be served?
These are the questions Cardboard Citizens faces with determined, hard-hitting effrontery. Sarah Woods’ Benefit is forum theatre at its most tryingly emotional and directly inspirational. The three stories interlace, as we see the interlocking scenes repeated for each character: at the food bank and the CV writing workshop. The repeated scenes become skewed; altered to become increasingly politically explicit each time we come back to them, rehearsing well-known attacks on the benefits system with satirical spite.
Each time the characters come back on stage they bring with them a chair. The space – a bright white cube, framed with red tubing and outlined with strips of LED lighting – becomes increasingly claustrophobic. It mirrors the fact that the stories heighten their critique of the welfare system and injustice becomes incrementally more evident.
Then in the second half, true to Augusto Boal’s forum theatre, the audience get tested; inspired; involved. We can stop the action. Rehearse a scene again. Practice taking positive action. Try and find a dynamic way to improve a character’s situation. Boal said: “The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.” Never has a piece of theatre met this expectation so clearly. If only everyone had seen it before #GE2015.