It is a grim reality, rarely acknowledged in our everyday lives, that most of us have little idea of where our food comes from. Each time a video surfaces that demonstrates the horrific slaughter of a squad of farm animals, probably circulated by a rogue freedom fighter or the controversy-loving PETA, viewers squeal in horror and vocalise disgust, but soon comes dinner time and, to most, that plate of breaded chicken smells delightful. The plate we see in front of us is so far removed from the slaughterhouse that it is fairly easy to remain ignorant.
People have been eating meat and poultry for years; “it’s natural”. Except of course, that our traditional understanding of ‘farming’ is no longer relevant in the current mass food production process. How could it be when the prices of poultry and meat keep lowering to feed so many hungry mouths? Are we really surprised that corners are being cut?
It’s a rather contentious issue, which Chicken Dust expertly explores, with a sympathetic ear for the farmers and workers who are caught in the middle between the consumer who wants the cheapest product possible available, all the time, and the bosses who want to see their profits soar and care little about how it is achieved as long as all methods are kept on the q.t.
Ben Weatherill’s Chicken Dust is set on a rural chicken farm in the East Midlands, where, having recently experienced a diseased flock, owner Russ (Paul Easom) is struggling to keep his farm afloat and maintain the workload for his dedicated team. Weatherill spins his tale with empathy for the workers, whose voices are often absent from more familiar discourse surrounding factory farming, which usually vilifies all involved and pleads with consumers to check labels and buy organic. Fair, but dismissive of the entire picture.
Weatherill paints a bleak picture of life on the farm, but celebrates the sense of camaraderie between the workers; he advises his audience that for this group, opportunities for work are scarce; they’re lucky to be working at all.
Perhaps, this is why it is such a surprise when newcomer Tim (Christopher Hancock), a spry 20-something, joins the seasoned team who have been working on the farm long beyond their prime, including Romanian Razvan (Mark Conway), ex-con Val (Paddy Navin) and old-timer Freddie (Roger Alborough), whose loyalty to the farm has a distinct echo to George Orwell’s Boxer, the most dedicated and loyal of Animal Farm. Tim soon slots right in to the gang, proving himself to be one of the misfits, yet, with a rogue dodgy bird threatening the security of the flock and the arrival of company boss, Oscar (Alexander Gatehouse), they realise the farm’s fate is not as secure as they’d hoped.
Chicken Dust is a grim peek into an industry that affects us all. A particularly sinister moment occurs when a real-life clip of chickens being shoved into small, desperately overcrowded cages is projected onto Russ’s white shirt, whilst he stands static.
It’s a powerful play that acknowledges the brutality of the industry whilst remaining entirely sympathetic to the manual labour workers who are trying to keep up with the demanding for more produce at cheaper prices. Weatherill has created a powerful, informative and moving play, whilst steering clear of preachy tactics.
Chicken Dust is playing at Finborough Theatre until 17 March. For tickets and more information, see the Finborough Theatre website.