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Counter culture

By Lorraine Courtney

Political art is often charged with achieving the impossible: producing real, tangible change. Artists don’t pass laws or have a finger on the button, so what can they possibly do to influence governments or dislodge the structures of power? Will they ever save the world through ideas, objects and images alone? ‘Counter Culture’ is a play trying to do this.

The play was first launched by the Fishamble Show-in-a-Bag scheme for the Dublin Fringe in 2013, and has toured widely in Ireland ever since. It’s a hilarious yet hard-hitting social realist fairytale, that’s set in the fictional Macken’s Department Store in Dublin on the busiest day of the year: a snowy 8th December. It’s also the day management decide to introduce zero hours contracts for their workers.

The murky world of life on zero-hours contracts hit the headlines here with the recent strike in Dunnes Stores and we learned what it is like not to know how big next week’s pay cheque is going to be – or if they will receive one at all. Katie O’Kelly was inspired by an old photograph though.

“I came across a picture. It was of my Granny, on strike, holding a placard outside Clery’s in Dublin in 1983. She worked there for over 30 years. She was campaigning for better pay and conditions for workers, and the right to form their own union. It was a side of my granny I had never known about, and it all seemed so different to the world of retail that I knew, where employees were treated almost like replaceable commodities”. And so O’Kelly flings her audience into the world of fashion retail, a web of hangers, sales targets and bunions, where the workers realise they as disposable as the fashion they sell.

O’Kelly begins and ends her multi-character journey as a personified snowflake who flutters about and alights in the palm of the outstretched hand of Jim Larkin’s statue. This is the story of four employees (and a few other transitory characters) on a normal working day. It’s skillfully if a touch schematically done, and energetically performed by O’Kelly, who manages effortless transitions between the protagonists. We meet Gemma, a heavily pregnant young woman who is not allowed to sit down during her long shift in the bedding section, and her frail grandmother, Bridie, who has never missed a day’s work at Macken’s since she started out working there at just eighteen.

“Amidst all the chaos of contracts and consumerism, at the core of ‘Counter Culture’ is the personal story of a granny and granddaughter, and their journey together through the day in Macken’s when zero-hours contracts are brought in. I think it’s important that the central two characters are female, as the majority of retail workers affected by zero and low-hour contracts are women, and their story should be told”.

Through this kaleidoscopic story of inequity in the modern workplace, nostalgia, bribery, struggle, and half hope, told with the utmost industriousness by the pitch-perfect O’Kelly, the plot brims to the point of overflow for such a short play. The storytelling is not always successful. The characters (and this production) seem trapped on a roundelay, turning in ever decreasing circles. It is indulgent in its way – it could run at less than the apportioned time without losing anything.

Yet O’Kelly’s baggy, blackly hilarious script is marked by a great joy in writing and a love of her characters. She imbues it with a beautifully watchable rhythm that only flags a little. Still Donal O’Kelly’s direction is taut and there are beautiful scenes like the brilliantly imaginative use of an empty metal clothes-rack.

O’Kelly believes ‘Counter Culture’ can make a real impact this year in Edinburgh – the biggest international theatre window in the world, and focus attention on the issue of decent working conditions. It could. This enjoyable piece of agitprop makes no apologies for doing so. You see the truly political artist can insinuate and subtly subvert opinion without sledgehammer sermons, engaging the public consciousness on a deeper level and infiltrating the lifeblood of culture. Politics in art is still possible; in this age of apathy is vital. •