Dirty Work: Mining absurdity

By: Malcolm Calder (New Zealand Arts Review)

Jacob Rajan describes Dirty Work as the biggest, most ambitious and most bonkers idea the company has ever had.

It stems from Albert Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sysiphus and is set locally in the modern branch office – or maybe call/service centre – of a Bangalore-based company known as Sysiphus International.  There is a total cast of about 25.  Or more.  Or less.  Don’t worry, maths was never my strong suit either.

However only three are what we might call actors.  Justin Roger (Neil) crafts us a self-important middle manager who is barely starting to catch a glimpse of his own shortcomings and incompetencies.  He might or not fancy his offsider Zaara, who Tessa Rao carefully develops as a fairly bright, trendy and upwardly mobile young woman with a carefully honed eye towards … well, herself actually.  And wandering amidst them in her own self-contained world is a cleaning lady (Catherine Yates), who is struggling to meet her domestic obligations but does her best to cheerfully carry out her work chores each day and is pretty much ignored by the workforce.  I can’t recall her name.  Must be in the songlist somewhere!  However the poor woman suffers from some kind of speech or dental impediment because, no matter how hard she tries, the best she can manage is ‘Syphilus International’.

Despite Neil’s polyphonic, pious platitudes to the contrary, no one really gives two hoots about Sisyphus International.  It’s just a job.  And it provides income.

Supporting them, and the point of difference of Dirty Work, are the 20-odd community choristers who double as work-station workers brought together under the musical direction of Josh Clark (who gets a work station all to himself – a wider one.  Something to do with a keyboard).

They don’t give two hoots about Sysiphus International either, probably because there is a different choir for each performance, few of them know each other and the vast majority have never met the actors, seen a script nor even understand what Dirty Work is actually about.

And it’s about seeing people for who they really are.  And empathy.  And understanding.  And it shakes a small fist at workplaces where people are merely seen as nameless work-cybers or automatons rather than as individuals with their own hopes, aspirations, sensitivities and shortcomings.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a deeper workplace metaphor in there somewhere too.  But you’ll easily get the plot.  Enough said.

The idea of the large and revolving choral cast (and presumably locally-auditioned singers when Dirty Work goes on the road later in the year) is not a new one.  It is certainly a way of reaching out, of increasing community involvement and of improving accessibility.  And it’s not such a silly idea about growing audience numbers too. I have no idea of the total involved but it must be considerable.  I pity the poor choir wrangler.

There are about 8 songs that range from Puccini‘is Humming Chorus, to a resounding version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a couple of traditional tunes, the key song from Slumdog Millionaire and everything concludes with Lorde’s Royals.

There are a lot of chuckles in this show.  Although I feel with a bit more familiarity from choristers, and even some carefully written lines allowing for a wee bit more interraction, these could easily become far bigger outright laughs. And even a big, bright, brassy Bollywood version of a couple of the songs wouldn’t go astray either.