Sean O’Callaghan tells Shelley Marsden about a new play which explores zero hours contracts…
YOU don’t really get more topical than a new piece of theatre that tackles the issue of zero hour contracts. It was addressed in the recent Queen’s speech, and companies like Amazon and MacDonalds have been in the firing line for their use of such seemingly inhumane contracts.
According to recent reports, following a letter from Employment Minister Esther McVey, jobseekers face losing their benefits for 3 months unless they take zero hours contracts. According to the Office for National Statistics, the numbers of these contracts which require employees to remain on standby, yet don’t guarantee minimum hours or pay, has reached 1.4million, with more than one in 10 employers using them and recipients in the main women, young people and those over 65 years old.
Brutal and darkly funny new play Beyond Caring, devised and directed by rising talent Alexander Zeldin, address the contentious topic head-on, as it follows four cleaners working the night shift in a meat factory, stuck in a nightmare cycle of work, home, sleep, work, until they get too close to each other and tensions erupt.
One of them is played by Cork-born actor Sean O’Callaghan. “It’s looking at that horrendous instability of not knowing how many hours you’ll get from one week to the next, therefore how much you’ll be paid”, she says, “and also the ways people are conned out of being paid the minimum wage, that whole area where there’s supposed to be a growth in the country, but actually that growth is based on the huge spike in these kinds of jobs”.
“They’re all on the dreaded zero-hours contract – except Sean’s character: “He’s the exception. He’s been around a little longer but he keeps his head down and tries not to cause trouble. But in this kind of environment, it’s hard not to fall foul of the system.”
The drudgery, the harshness of these people’s daily grind is punctuated by moments of great humour. It’s not political with a capital P, says Sean, but reveals the human cost to people of these situations and as ever, no matter how low people sink, there’s always humour to be found.
“Irish literature’s full of it, take Juno and the Paycock – it’s all very grim and then suddenly the Paycock does something silly with Joxter, you know what I mean? There’s that flip from tragedy to comedy.”
Beyond Caring could be the only play tackling a subject which is starting to be addressed more and more in the political arena. But its precarious nature is definitely something actors should identify with, does Sean?
“To a certain degree, but at least we choose this world”, he laughs, confessing he’s been pretty lucky, with just one brief period after drama school, where he worked as a nursing auxiliary at Stoke Mandeville Hospital to make ends meet.
“It’s kind of become a joke now. You see young people wanting to go into a certain profession, and people saying you may as well go into acting sure, there’s about the same amount of job stability. But yeah of course, we can relate to the precarity. We’re all a beat of a heart away from these situations, which the play reminds us of.”
He adds: “It’s amazing how unions, protecting workers’ rights, have become completely demonised over the years. Over here, that’s since the 80s. It’s one of the big phenomenons of the last 40 years I think – how the powers of the institutions that fought to protect us have been completely eroded, and we’re now subjected to terrible working conditions.”
Researching for the play the cast have come across many eye-opening examples, including cleaners similar to their characters, and homeless people that have fallen through the net.
One person Sean was shocked by was a Moroccan woman he met who, for 250 pounds a week, was at the beck and call of the owners of a huge townhouse in London city centre, working six days a week and on-call 24 hours a day.
“She was told to always be available but also to ‘be invisible’, and her contract was basically connected to her visa – so if she lost her job, she’d be sent straight back to Morocco. It was almost like a slavery situation”.
He added: “How people that are economically at the bottom of the pile are being treated like dirt, being abused is shocking to me, even if I like to think I’m a man of the world! We’re talking about the owners of a house that must have cost at least 20 million…The world we investigated almost felt Dickensian.”
The actor, who has worked with the likes of the RSC and The National, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor by the Irish Times for his role in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (Lyric), loves working with new writing, but it’s back to the classics straight after.
“Oh, I’m playing Friar Lawrence next in Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. From the sublime to the ridiculous! Variety – that’s what it’s all about.”
Beyond Caring is at The Yard, Hackney Wick, London from July 1-26. To book visit www.theyardtheatre.co.uk.