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With the welfare state a key general election issue, a play starring homeless people looks at the lives affected by sanctions and zero hours contracts, writes Antonia Charlesworth.

“This is the first play I’ve been in for seven years,” explains Mark Lockyer, whose credits for the likes of the RSC and the National Theatre are extensive. “I was a professional actor for 23 years but in 2007 I broke down because of bipolar disorder and chronic alcoholism. I lost everything.”

After three years in and out of hospitals and hostels Lockyer went to AA and regained his health before realising he wanted his career back too.

In November 2014 he joined Cardboard Citizens, a company that’s been making theatre with and for homeless people for over 30 years.

“I never believed I would live, let alone act again. Miracles happen daily and I’m one of them,” reflects the actor, who stars in Benefit, the company’s most ambitious national tour to date.

Tackling displacement, disability and sex addiction, the play tells three interwoven stories about characters on the margins of society. English graduate Rosa is haunted by the history of her Chilean family, Craig suffers from a sex addiction that is destroying his relationship and Patrick is rendered near speechless by his inability to understand the Kafkaesque world into which he is thrust when seeking support. By telling the stories of these individual true-to-life struggles, Benefit looks at the impact of austerity and asks how we can best deal with the world we are now in.

But the plays themselves are really only the first half of the stories, points out playwright and activist Sarah Woods.

“The plays themselves, in their structure, are different to other sorts of plays. So everything about the evening is geared towards the participation of the debate that follows and completes the plays,” she says.

“Any debate is crucially important because it enables a group of people to – at best – come together as a community, to move into a space of shared meaning and to begin to create change.”

Change is the main objective of Benefit. Austerity, she believes, is pushing people further apart, and as more people slide into poverty, more people become disenfranchised and disempowered.

“I want to enable people on both sides of the inequality divide to see what is happening, why it is happening and to reach past the scapegoating, the dehumanisation, the divide and rule nature of current politics, to find our humanity again.”

Benefit was born of a response to what Woods calls an art-shaped hole in the complex political shifts happening at the moment. She is not alone however in this response – she believes it’s giving rise to a new type of artist who works with people and communities for social change.

In preparation for Benefit, the writer worked with members of Cardboard Citizens, all of whom have experienced homelessness, exploring the ideas of inequality and fairness, and sharing experiences. This, she explains, provides a shortcut to making work about things that are at the heart of the matter – in this case benefit reform and austerity and their effects on the most vulnerable in society.

“I also did lots of reading of reports and talked to people with different areas of experience and knowledge,” she says. “Foodbanks, people wrestling with food poverty, welfare rights workers, an ex-Jobcentre employee, ex-sex addicts, a Chilean refugee, people who are currently unemployed and sanctioned. So while none of the plays tell any individual’s story they are all representations of many, many lived experiences.”

Benefit is on 16-17 April, Lantern Theatre, Liverpool then touring venues in Manchester, St Helens, Wakefield, Barnsley and Doncaster.


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