Surveillance and the modern corp: Contractions, a Fringe review

April Banigan and Kristi Hansen in Contractions. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Contractions (Stage 13, Old Strathcona Public Library)

What makes this chilling tightly-wound little Brit two-hander so horrifying is its smooth plausibility. At every step of the way, it sounds exactly like like the kind of corporate logic you hear when you step into an HR office.

Mike Bartlett’s play, originally written for radio in 2008 (the big economic downtown year), is all about the increased invasion of corporations into the private lives of their employees — with the ultimate leverage, their jobs.

You’d call it an absurdist fantasy, but is it? In a series of 14 “performance interviews,” an HR manager — played with supreme blandness and deadening professional calm by April Banigan in Tracy Carroll’s production — summons an employee (Kristi Hansen) in sales. Incrementally, step by step, the latter, and her personal life, even her sex life, become the property of the corp.

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It starts with the contract that calls for full disclosure of all personal connections between co-workers, for signs of “romantic” and “sexual” content. Emma is being monitored by the company,  always on the grounds of “safety and fair practice” or “relevant staff projections” or “a duty of care.” At every step, it’s more invasive. From questions about the dinner Emma shared with a colleague (“apparently, there was a candle on the table?”) to “how did you find the sex?.” And beyond, way beyond.

Emma is wary and hostile, even defiant, but up against it; she capitulates at every turn. She needs the job. And resistance is futile. “If we don’t have facts, we’ll go on assumptions,” warns the silky-voiced HR manager. And so the gradual ownership and humiliation of Emma continues apace, to lethal conclusions.

The pacing and the sinister looping of scenes in Carroll’s production are spot on. With her usual subtlety Hansen chronicles the incremental colonization of Emma from initial perplexity and seething resentment to acquiescence and beyond. And as the impervious manager of ill-named “human resources,” the smiling blank of bureaucracy to which no argument sticks, Banigan is simply terrifying.

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