Emma’s been seeing Darren. She thinks she’s in love. Her boss thinks she’s in breach of contract. The situation needs to be resolved.
An ink-black comedy about work and play, which invites the audience to a meeting at the centre of the Royal Court building.
Director Lyndsey Turner
Lighting Nicki Brown
Sound David McSeveney
Mike Bartlett’s work includes My Child (Royal Court) and Artefacts.
Seating capacity strictly limited – advance booking advised.
Select a Date
Dates in May
|Thu 29 May 2008||12:00am||Royal Court Theatre|
Sold out Performances
£15, Monday all seats £10. Concessions £10.
4 stars Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday 5th June
Is radio sometimes more potent than theatre? Listening to Mike Bartlett’s Love Contract on Radio 4 last year, I was both gripped and chilled. Seeing the play staged, under a new title, in an upstairs room at the Royal Court with 30 other people, I still find it compelling. The difference is that questions of plausibility arise when the play is visibly enacted.
Bartlett is definitely on to something: the increasing invasion by big companies into their employees’ privacy. With deft precision, he shows a power-dressed female manager interviewing Emma, from sales, about her love life. At first, there is something comic about the firm’s legalistic definition of what constitutes a “romantic or sexual relationship”. This, however, turns to morbid prurience when the manager demands intimate details of Emma’s affair with a colleague, Darren. Alarm bells ring when the relationship goes on too long. Emma’s pregnancy leads to enforced severance from Darren and ruthless manipulation of every aspect of her existence.
Could it happen? Quite conceivably. Two years ago, this paper reported an American survey revealing that 31 of 80 firms asked staff to declare office love affairs. Bartlett pursues this idea with impeccable logic, showing how employees, anxious to keep their jobs, become complicit. People, he suggests, even start to monitor themselves, with Darren reporting that sex with Emma was “excellent” while she classifies it as merely “good”.
Bartlett, in the manner of early absurdist plays by Havel or Ionesco, takes a plausible premise to a lethal conclusion; and this is where the difference between radio and theatre becomes crucial. Emma’s ultimate act is a surrender to the firm, but what was an imaginative metaphor on air becomes an improbable device on stage.
It remains a timely and engrossing 50-minute play. Lyndsey Turner’s production, staged in a white-walled rehearsal room, captures exactly the right air of sanitised desiccation. Julia Davis shrewdly plays the desk-bound manager not as an Orwellian ogre but as someone who believes she is acting for the best: challenged by Emma over her attempts to turn her into a single-minded success-worshipper, Davis blandly replies, “What else is there?”
Anna Madeley is excellent as Emma, showing how truculent defiance of corporate intrusiveness gradually gives way to willing compliance – chilling proof that, as the recession bites, we will increasingly permit companies to own us, body and soul.
Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 5th June
What kind of society are we labouring away to give birth to? A truly repellent one, if Mike Bartlett*’*s Contractions, which speaks with brutally entertaining, bullet-point directness to the slaving, anxiety-ridden middle-classes is to be believed.
Bartlett who made a big splash last year with My Child- about a divorced dad desperately vying for access to his son – displays here an extraordinary gift for satire. Extraordinary because this two-hander is often ferociously funny while being absolutely appalling – pulling off the rare trick of being at once far-fetched and grimly plausible.
Staged in an office space upstairs at the Royal Court, the set-up is simple: a female manager asks a younger female employee in for a catch-up chat. Her tone is clipped and efficient, neither friendly nor unfriendly.
The employee – Emma – is polite, guarded, and able – apparently – to disguise her discomfort at being asked to read aloud a section of her contract. This is the clause forbidding “any relationship, activity or act” between employees “which could be characterised as sexual or romantic”. The sales company Emma toils for has accorded itself the right to dictate the terms by which co-workers can conduct inter-personal relations.
Over the following meetings that right is applied with a brazen prurience and a flabbergasting destructiveness that reveals the manager as a moral monster and Emma as a powerless puppet in her hands. Forced to concede an attachment to a male colleague, Emma is allowed to leave no aspect of her private life undeclared – or undamaged – in order to keep her job. Bartlett rustles up one humiliation after another – achieving an Orwellian finesse in his depiction of absolute power and pulling off a savage twist that recalls Swift_’s _A Modest Proposal.
If Julia Davis – who gave us such a memorable she-devil in her sitcom Nighty Night is enjoying the comic excesses of her nameless character here, there_’_s no trace of it. She maintains a deadly impassivity throughout, chilling in her cordial neutrality and unfathomable in her inhuman malice, neatly compiling notes of every exchange on a clipboard.
As her victim, Anna Madeley beautifully charts Emma’s descent from quiet, career-woman confidence to flustered disbelief and then abject, suppressed grief. Lyndsey Turner directs with a devoted ear for the needling precision of Bartlett’s language and the toxic swirling clouds of subtext that lie couched in every silence. 4 stars Sam Marlowe, Times, Thursday 5th June
It*’*s just 45 minutes long, but Mike Bartlett’s new two-hander, directed by Lyndsey Turner, is an intensely disturbing experience. It takes place in an anonymous meeting room in the bowels of the Royal Court building. The audience sits on a row of chairs against opposite walls while an imposing and immaculately besuited woman – played with pitch-perfect condescension and the occasional subtle flash of sadism by Julia Davis – leafs through paperwork at a desk. Into her domain walks Anna Madeley’s Emma, an eager-to-please younger employee. What follows, couched in the sterile language of the workplace appraisal with all its faux concern and corporate jargon, is a gently spoken act of torture that dismantles Emma’s existence.
The contrast between Davis’s unfailingly polite, almost robotic measured tone and the aggression embedded in her words is breathtaking. Her probing of Emma’s relations with her colleagues, backed up by an intrusive clause in her employment contract, escalates into a full-scale interrogation about her personal life, right down to the intimate details of her sexual activities. Over a series of meetings, Emma is forced to reveal that an affair with a coworker has led to her pregnancy. The consequences, laid out before the increasingly distraught young woman in a tone of chilly reasonableness, are horrifying.
Despite its low volume, Bartlett’s play sounds an ear-splitting alarm against the multiplying incursions on our privacy. It highlights the inhumanity of corporate structures and the way in which work often rules our lives. But it also points up the dangers of a broader surveillance culture, with steadily rising levels of government interference in individual choices and behaviour. We are careering towards a society, Bartlett implies, that sees all and understands nothing; where everything, from a romantic date to the death of a child, can be reduced to a string of figures, like a credit score.
Davis and Madeley are both faultless, and Turner’s taut production threatens to tie your intestines in knots. It’s grotesquely funny – and it chills to the bone.