The four characters in The Pulverised, by Romanian-French writer Alexandra Badea, which opened last week at the Arcola Theatre, are all cogs in one multinational corporate chain. They do not know each other or interact with each other and they are based in four corners of the world. They don’t have names but descriptions (for instance Call Centre Team Leader, Dakar or Research and Development Engineer, Bucharest) and as the audience files in, they are all lying sprawled on the set, partially submerged in mounds of a soft gravel, surrounded in monitors and computer desks which are half buried around them and suspended from the ceiling.
The first scene is arresting as they twitch into life, get up off the floor and perform a robotic dance to some electronic sounds, a video projection on the wall behind them (sound and AV design by Ashley Ogden). Then it is straight into the first monologue, delivered by Richard Corgan (playing Quality Assurance of Subcontractors Manager), trying to locate where he is in the world in yet another anonymous hotel room. His sad existence abroad, when not working, is spent watching prostitutes on the web cam whilst simultaneously skyping his wife and uninterested son. He says more than once that he keeps on speaking to avoid the silences.
Other monologues follow suite, mostly presented solo, but sometimes interacting with other cast members who are slightly awkwardly lying on the ground when it is not their scene. This restricts the action and feels quite uncomfortable (it must be even more so for the actors). Between scenes, like automatons, they jerk and twitch until the next person gets into position again.
Each of the characters works in a different sector in this corporate conglomerate. At the bottom end of the scale is the Factory Worker in Shanghai (Rebecca Boey) whose every move is caught on security cameras, and who is barely allowed a toilet break. She functions by dreaming about running, singing, dancing and dreaming in her two seconds’ rest period – but there is no escape. Kate Miles plays the Research and Development Engineer who relaxes by re-watching a favourite YouTube clip of the sea, and there is a comic moment when she launches all of her (many) computer programmes like a conductor conducting Mozart. The Call Centre Team Leader (Solomon Israel) is based in Senegal and torn between listening to Jesus on his headphones and lasciviously admiring the rear end of a Senegalese employee who then angers him by refusing to take on a French name. His characterisation is ultimately the most effective as you feel a strong and poignant dilemma in his job which causes some real dramatic tension. As a performer Israel really stands out here.
Overall there are good performances but The Pulverised has its flaws. It loses pace and could have been a good thirty minutes shorter. The use of the video design footage does not remain consistent, neither does the music, and there is little need for the characters to physically remove pieces out of the back wall. It is already clear that they are each perilously close to cracking.
hattydaze rating: ***/*****