Muncitor: All Workers Go to Heaven

Ioana Paun
The Romanian Cultural Institute in association with Theatre Royal Stratford East
Theatre Royal Stratford East

Muncitor: All Workers Go to Heaven Credit: Dana Popa
Muncitor: All Workers Go to Heaven Credit: Dana Popa
Muncitor: All Workers Go to Heaven Credit: Dana Popa

Muncitor is simply Romanian for a worker, and this is a piece about work and how we behave in a work situation.

It is the creation of Romanian director Ioana Paun, made with the collaboration of a number of others and of the audience. It sets out, she says, to tackle "the meaning of domination and power abuse in a hybrid performance that mixes live art and sociological experiment" and is described as participatory theatre in which each night's audience will change what happens.

This makes it another of those difficult pieces to write about because the audience needs to come to it freshly without knowing too much about it and because, if it truly is as described, the performance I see could be very different from any other.

After booking, each member of the audience is asked to complete a short questionnaire that asks some basic questions about age, gender, highest educational qualification, job and what they feel about themselves in certain situations. This might help the production team in selecting ten people who are called out by name from the waiting audience to enter the workplace where the "experiment" is carried out.

It begins with a voice telling us that we have no value until someone either buys or sells us, and, through the evening as the performance proceeds, economic and employment statistics are frequently presented: average earnings in different countries, minimum wages, income differentials and the proportion of goods—souvenirs for the 2012 Olympics, for instance, that are made by sweated labour.

Meanwhile we watch or take part in the daily routine of a manufacturing unit with manager, supervisors and workers, the spectators watching through the windows of the workroom and offices of Maria Pites's set and hearing what is going on through three different sound channels on headphones (sound by Giorgio Cadamuro).

It takes the first forty minutes of the two-hour performance (no interval) for each of the participants to be given their instructions by the "Voice" in overall charge (heard by those viewing), a repetitious forty minutes that were beginning to get boring—the person next to me was already working through texts on his mobile phone.

Perhaps that induced tedium was intended to create an audience equivalent to doing a routine job. With roles assigned and work begun the performances shares some of that strange fascination that comes from watching other people at work. Nothing of much importance seemed to be happening, but you did go on watching with more attention. Strangely, when something interesting seemed to develop in the worker's conversation, it was frequently drowned out by a loud music track—not music for the workers or as sound effects but something to add excitement like a film score.

I began with a somewhat restricted view but one that allowed me to see all three parts of the set, and through the performance the audience moves to three different viewpoints, each giving a different perspective, especially when largely limited to the manager's office.

The workers I watched were not keen to wear their work outfits as instructed and before the shift ended were staging a strike, though I'm not sure why or what about or who initiated it. There were a few laughs and elements that were decidedly bizarre. I am dubious of its value as an experiment, if indeed it is intended to be a real one, and as entertainment; if I am going to watch workers I think I would prefer to do it in more dramatic context. This isn't a patch on the work of Wesker or Storey but it is not trying to do the same thing.

As for the audience influencing the show: from my place on the outside I had no influence whatever. I also have to be somewhat dubious as to how much of what was going on inside the set was generated by audience members. Some certainly seemed to be actors and since they were told while having a telephone conversation that no-one else could hear them when they were being broadcast to all those outside, I strongly suspect they may all have been actors, for to broadcast what you say in private would seem to be an improper exposure.

Stretching the bounds of theatre one can only approve of, but while intending to be participatory this seem to miss that essential of theatre a rapport between performer and audience. It may be live art, but if we are going to go outside the normal theatrical relationship there are much more interesting things out there—including the Theatre Royal's current En Route.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton