Review: The Pulverised at Arcola Theatre

Alexandra Badea’s The Pulverised is all about connection. Or rather, the lack of it. Globalisation may be bringing everyone closer together on a business level, the play argues, but at what cost to us as human beings? Following the stories of four professionals based in different countries but working for the same multinational corporation, Badea paints a catastrophic picture of lives without meaning, families who barely know each other, and identities lost to the corporate machine. In keeping with this, director Andy Sava situates Lucy Phelps’ translation in a scene of carnage; the stage is littered with smashed office equipment and rubble, and four bodies lie inert on the ground.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

A Quality Assurance of Subcontractors Manager from Lyon (Richard Corgan) wakes up in a characterless hotel room and for a minute can’t remember what country he’s in. A factory worker in Shanghai (Rebecca Boey) spends her days on a production line in which any loss of speed and efficiency could cost her job – or worse. An ambitious Call Centre Team Leader in Dakar (Solomon Israel) can’t understand why a new recruit might object to adopting a French name in place of her own. And a Research and Development Engineer in Bucharest (Kate Miles) spends time with her family the only way she can – by spying on them via CCTV while she’s at the office.

The character profiles are deliberately vague; they’re all just one more nameless face in the rat race of global business, taking it in turns to address the audience in the second person and make the point that any one of them could be any one of us. The dialogue is rapid, and there’s a constant sense of urgency and pressure, of time being short – “the clock’s ticking, and you’re falling behind” is a frequent refrain, as is the supposedly motivational “aim for excellence”. In between their scenes, the actors crumple to the ground as if too exhausted to react to anything beyond their own experience, raising their heads to monotonously voice secondary characters in other stories, before powering back up to continue their own.

This unusual structure effectively conveys the isolation of the characters, though it does run the risk of becoming repetitive, particularly as the play is more a collection of snapshots than a story in the traditional sense, and we end pretty much where we began. It’s testament to the engaging performances of the four actors that the play holds our attention for the full 90 minutes, with each capturing the emotional and mental strain faced by their character, but also the absolute impossibility of breaking free from their soul-destroying routine. Simultaneously they – and we – are bombarded by a multimedia sensory overload, with video projections from Ashley Ogden particularly effective at demonstrating the constant flow of data and images that’s become part of 21st century life.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

The Pulverised is a relentlessly bleak piece of theatre. Nobody gets a happy ending, and even for the characters who are offered an opportunity to escape, there’s a depressing sense that nothing is really going to change. But the play does force us to confront for a moment the damaging effects of progress, to reflect on that ‘made in China’ label that allowed us to pay half price, and also to consider our own priorities and work-life balance. The piece-by-piece breaking down of the set’s rear wall offers the tiniest glimpse of an emergency exit for those brave enough to take it, and the suggestion that while we may not be able to stop globalisation, we can at least save ourselves from being pulverised by it.

The Pulverised is at Arcola Theatre until 27th May.

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