Dirty Work Review

By: Lexie Matheson (Theatreview) Actor Justin Rogers sits looking confused at his laptop while holding a pen out. Tessa Rao stands looking at a piece of paper in Justin's hand. Catherine Yates is seen blurred in the background

The Cambridge Online Dictionary describes work as ‘an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money’.

Maybe this explains why I’m up at 3.30am writing this – because it’s a job. It’s not just a job of course, not many people who are driven to engage in the performing arts in Aotearoa do it simply because it’s a job. Or for the money. Ask us why we are consumed by the need to ceaselessly produce work in, or on the periphery of, this brutal industry and you may get an articulate answer. You may not. Mostly you won’t, because what drives us is often the primitive and fundamental desire to make sense of our world and to enrich that understanding by putting it in front of others and asking what they think.

While important, this is not always a good, or self-sustaining, idea.

In a Spinoff article about Indian Ink, Sam Brooks – himself a sublimely talented maker of theatre work – describes the portfolio of outstanding reviews of Krishnan’s Dairy in these terms: “Those reviews don’t exaggerate. Krishnan’s Dairy is, hands down, the most successful independent show in New Zealand theatre history. It has toured nationally, and internationally, several times to sold-out audiences. It established Rajan’s company, Indian Ink, as a pillar of New Zealand theatre, and has brought thousands of patron’s joy, and more than a few tears.”

Tautoko that!

The company says of itself that “we aim to make theatre that is beautiful, funny, sad and true. We go to the theatre to be transported by a great story and to enjoy characters who live large in our imaginations. We want the experience to leave an indelible imprint on your hearts. That’s why we’re called Indian Ink!”

Tautoko that too!

My first experience of Indian Ink and its principals was in 2001 as Business Manager of the Maidment Theatre where season after season of Krishnan’s Dairy sold out. The audience demographic was impossible to track because it seemed everyone wanted a piece of this solo show about an Indian dairy owner. It was magic, and every show since has equally defied description. You think you know what you’re in for only to find that you were wrong and that being wrong was a very, very good thing. Dirty Work – subtitled An Ode to Joy – is no different and even the titles give a deceptive wink to what’s to come. Keep digging, it says, spade work is good for you.

The camera is focused over Josh Clark (musical director) shoulder while he plays the keyboard on stage. Heads of choir members can be seen in the backgroundThe premise is rich in personal challenges. I can hear the conversation now: let’s do a piece about work and let’s set it in an office with the cleaner as the central character. Let’s call her Joy and the piece ‘An Ode to Joy’ – Schiller and Beethoven won’t mind – and let’s make it even more complex for ourselves by having a live choir onstage every night dropping a few anthems and let’s have them play office workers but not ever let them see the script. That should do it.’

And it does.

I can’t speak for anyone else but Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125’ lives in my collective memory as music I think I’ve always known. It’s a choral symphony and ‘The Ode to Joy’, which everyone will hum along to, is embedded as the 4th Movement. What we often don’t know is that Schiller’s poem – which provides the lyric for the symphony – is intensely political. Beethoven was a great admirer of Schiller and “The Ode’s themes of ‘humans as free and rational beings and the sanctity of the brotherhood of man and peace” (as noted in Ireland’s National Concert Hall notes) closely align with Beethoven’s beliefs.

I might be overthinking this, but these themes also align with those of Dirty Work and history would suggests this music wasn’t a random choice but was chosen because of this alignment. Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy has all the hallmarks of Indian Ink’s best work, and tart and pertinent social commentary is always present in spades.

Lewis and Rajan are in great company, choosing ‘The Ode to Joy’ as a rasping, poignant, if oblique, social theme as it has been a protest anthem for decades. “Protestors in Chile sang it during a demonstration against the Pinochet dictatorship and Chinese students broadcast it from Tiananmen Square. Leonard Bernstein performed it on the Christmas Day after the fall of the Berlin Wall at a special concert in the German capital” where he changed to name from ‘Ode to Joy’ to ‘Ode to Freedom’. Indian Ink use it in 2023 to celebrate the life and work of an office cleaner. Most appropriate, and also good fun.

Yes, we have all this and a choir as well.

Dirty Work will tour a number of centres and in each a different choir will be added to the production. In Tamaki Makaurau we are privileged to have John Rosser’s Viva Voce and they are in fine vocal fettle enriching the story line with a range of celebratory anthems bouncing from Puccini’s ‘Humming Chorus’ to ‘Matangi’ to Lorde’s ‘Royals’ with its appropriately classy class-driven lyrics. The finale is especially moving, providing me with a two-day earworm well worthy of the work.

The text is fantastic: so many puns, double entendre, intentional miss-hearings, set ups for visual gags and lines that cut to the quick. On opening night, the first 15 minutes take time to warm up but once the cast hits their straps there is no stopping them and it is a race to the end that leaves us both sore from laughing and pained by the anguished way the plot evolves.

Joy, a nobody throughout, carries a storyline of poverty and struggle but equally she is the unashamed heroine of the piece, a worker who finds her voice and uses it. How often do we forget that our commercial cleaners know us sublimely well through the rubbish we generate even if we seldom ever meet them. Organisations – and sadly individuals – treat their cleaning staff like trash and it’s an appalling social ugliness that we seldom stand up against or even acknowledge. At my last workplace, the cleaners were banned from using the staff lunchroom because ‘they might pinch stuff, you know what those darkies are like’. They were reduced to bringing thermos flasks of tea and sitting on the stairs to eat their evening meal.

Dirty Work is what it says it is – “it turns the office on its head” – but it also isn’t always what it seems. There’s an overtone of Brecht in the use of music to underwrite the plot and to make statements otherwise beyond the reach of the actors and it’s uncompromising in its celebration of work for work’s sake. The programme names the actors – Catherine Yates, Justin Rogers, Tessa Rao, and Jacob Rajan – but not the characters they play which speaks volumes as well.

It’s a straightforward plot. An office full of largely anonymous workers support a larger offshore company by providing business-related (mostly financial) services. There’s a middle manager who we all recognise. He’s out of his depth, socially inept, and promoted well above his capacity to perform. He’s harmless enough, easy to ignore and most of the staff do, and he’s building an ulcer for himself while he struggles desperately to please everyone around him, in particular a youngish woman who seems to be 2IC in the office.

She’s glamourous and forthright and full of the learning she’s experienced during her solitary month in an ashram. She carries much of the ugliness the plot needs, she’s judgemental, needy, opinionated, and not in a good way. For all that, we quite like her because she still manages to be thoughtful towards Joy at key moments thanks to masterful scripting and an empathic performance.

There’s also the hint of an office romance.Actor Tessa Rao sits in a yellow pant suit in a yogi pose on the ground. Justin Rogers sits in a brown jumper in an awkward yogi pose while staring at Tessa with one eye open and one closed.

Then there’s the office staff – who double as a choir or is it the other way around – who are mostly cyphers but with burgeoning personalities we grow to like.

And there’s the boss who makes contact via the manager’s laptop at the most inconvenient times and who throws curveballs of the most delightful sort at all the key characters and thus manipulates the plot in the most outrageous ways. On the way home I asked my son, who is an athlete and not an actor, who his favourite character was and he said it was the boss in the computer. He liked everyone else, but the boss was hard to beat, he said.

And there’s Joy, the ever-present Joy. She cleans and intersects with the plot driving it where necessary, and taking over when she needs to. She’s white trash North Shore Lorde in ‘Royals’ – “We count our dollars on the train to the party, and everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this, we didn’t come from money, we’ll never be royals, let me live that fantasy”. Like the song, Joy sticks in your head, reminding you to be kind to everyone you meet – especially the cleaners because, through your trash, they know exactly who you are. It’s a super’ self-deprecating performance and we love her breakout moment. The denouement is magnificent as is Joy and both must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Is Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy entertainment? Yes, it is. Is it what it says it is, a comedy? Yes, it is. It’s driven by a delicate balance of plot, character, form and style in true Indian Ink fashion. It’s thoughtful, heart-warming, cringe-making and culturally challenging. It’s a night out that takes its own revenge.

Is it innovative and new? Yes. Is it difficult? No, but it’s like a river: you can boat on it or you can dive into it. The deeper the dive the greater the satisfaction. Is it internally challenging? Sure is, it’s like J and J have said how can we make this piece our most challenging yet? They’ve done that, and we are the beneficiaries.

So, what’s with the music? Is it a musical? Yes, it is, but not in the traditional way, not West Side Story but with a wee touch of Brecht; Brecht but without the Pirate Jenny overlay. Soft Brecht, but with incisors at the ready.

Is it political? You bet it is. Every second Joy is on the stage is political … and she’s only ever off stage for a nanosecond.

Is the acting Brechtian too? Not really. These are fully fleshed out characters, real people. Splendidly preformed too by Catherine Yates, Justin Rogers, Tessa Rao, and Jacob Rajan.

I’ve said many times before if you want to do good work, work with the best people. How’s this for a list: Murray Edmond (Dramaturge), John Verryt (Set design), Jo Kilgour (Lighting design), Elizabeth Whiting (Costume design), Josh Clark (Music director), John Rosser (Choral advisor).

Two actors Catherine Yates and Justin Rogers, one an office manager and the other a cleaner are clicking pens.The best of the best.

Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy is also much more than the sum of its parts. It’s Indian Ink so it’s “beautiful, funny, sad and true. We are transported by a great story and enjoy characters who live large in our imaginations. We have an experience that leaves an indelible imprint on our hearts.” It’s more than the sum of its parts, yet it is also what it says it is. It’s a meeting place of great choices, and one of those choices is the genius of linking Dirty Work with the virtuosity of Lorde at her angry, working-class best.

That’s very smart indeed.

In the row in front of me is the wonderful Sir Roger Hall. His work, at its best, has the same impact on me as this does: deeply political below a surface of fun; another deep river. I wonder, in the moment, what he was thinking. Like the whole theatre experience, ephemeral, and I’ll never know. And that’s OK too.

At the end of the show, I stumble into the foyer on the arm of my son, and there’s Justin Lewis on the microphone thanking everyone for coming, for supporting Indian Ink, working the room, the job still not done. I hope he gets time to enjoy his success. Once again, he’s earned it. Thoroughly earned it. In a theatre – Q Theatre – that he was instrumental in making happen. I remember that too.

Will Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy change the world? Probably not. But if it makes each and every audience member think a tad more deeply about class, about race, about work, about kindness, about empathy, about picking up after ourselves, about love thy neighbour, then it’s done its job. The messages are there, loud and clear. All we have to do is hear them and act on them.

As we slip out into a cold, wet Auckland night I take a moment to appreciate the staff of Q Theatre. They understand what hospitality is and how to ensure every guest has the very best experience possible. Nothing is ever a bother. So very, very good. Quality service, like good theatre, doesn’t just happen. It takes time to evolve. Sometimes we just have to let things soak for a bit.

Seems appropriate, then, given the content, to give the penultimate word to Albert Camus since I started with him and his absurdist philosophies: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” – good advice for every actor. And the final word to the late Glenda Jackson: “The best theatre is trying to tell the truth, and the best politics is trying to tell the truth.”

Tautoko that!