Vaughan- Lawlor finds humanity in savage tales of the Rookie
In 1997, when Mark O’Rowe’s early short play Anna’s Ankle was staged by Bedrock at the Project, it carried a slightly unusual publicity quote, from the Evening Herald: “Degenerate . . . one of the most offensive pieces of work ever to be seen on the stage.” The over-the-top critical reaction was exactly what O’Rowe seemed to be trying to provoke: the play, after all, is a monologue for a director of snuff movies. “Degenerate” and “offensive” were the compliments for which it was fishing.
Two years later, O’Rowe made his breakthrough when the twin monologues that make up Howie the Rookie were staged at the Bush Theatre in London. Benedict Nightingale, writing in the London Times, remarked on its startlingly bleak and violent image of Dublin: “If this is a remotely representative picture of city life, the Irish Tourist Board would find it easier to sell the charms of Beirut.” This was not necessarily put forward as a negative. O’Rowe’s embryonic reputation as a purveyor of theatrical terror was a large part of his appeal.
Grotesquely vivid slasher-movie violence, animalistic sex, macho low-life swaggering, random psychopaths, and an underworld that could indeed be Dublin or Beirut or Chicago or Lagos – these were all parts of the package. (It seems apt that O’Rowe has done a version of the great gangster epic, The Threepenny Opera, as the Gate’s contribution to this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.)
And yet, there is more to O’Rowe than a wannabe Tarantino of the stage. In terms of form, he has struggled to escape the straitjacket of the monologue. But he has the most old-fashioned of Irish dramatic virtues – an intoxication with words. With the possible exception of Sebastian Barry, he is actually the most fastidiously literary of contemporary Irish playwrights. The peculiar dramatic tension that he generates in Howie the Rookie does not, oddly enough, lie in the picaresque (though most definitely not picturesque) misadventures of the pair of thugs who tell their interwoven tales. It comes, rather from the constant conflict between the tale and the telling, the relentless ugliness of the story and the strange, visceral beauty of the language in which it is told.
O’Rowe’s revisiting of his breakthrough play after 14 years – he directs Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s stunning performance for the Landmark production – is fascinating because it looks back, not in anger, but with tenderness. You wonder, watching it, whether you might be seeing a blazingly talented playwright circling back to his origins and testing his own capacity to move beyond the hellish territory he defined for himself all those years ago, to drop the macho stuff and grant admittance to more subtle emotions.
On the face of it, “subtle” is a laughable word to use. O’Rowe creates an amoral, chaotic underclass, a world in which the loss of a child is no more serious than the loss of an expensive tropical fish. Ugliness is flaunted like a national flag. This is a play that begins with The Howie Lee seeing his mate Ollie burning a mattress because it has been infected with scabies. The climax is a fight of breathtaking savagery, narrated by his namesake Howie the Rookie: “An’ I can see the white, the horrible white of The Howie’s snaggle tooth through his cheek, a dirty gobbet hangin’.” In between, there are belches, farts, urine, beatings, a monstrous girl called Avalanche, and the violent death of a child. If the play has an undercurrent of humour, its hue is of the darkest black: the comedy of relentless, ever more lurid awfulness.
Yet all of this is intriguingly softened in Vaughan-Lawlor’s performance. The big decision that O’Rowe has made is to have Vaughan-Lawlor play both characters, Howie Lee and the Rookie. This makes them, theatrically, into a single entity, a character seen first from the inside and then from the outside. The idea of redemption, a crazed but powerful search for atonement, sacrifice and forgiveness, becomes much more coherent.
This would scarcely matter were it not for Vaughan-Lawlor’s very particular aura. It is not just that he brings to bear an extraordinary verbal fluency, though his rhythmic, lyrical delivery does extract every last ooze of rough poetry from O’Rowe’s rap-inflected text. It is also that Vaughan-Lawlor has a feline, almost feminine physicality. His swagger is more like the prowling of a caged panther than the strutting of an alpha male. And he has, of course, eyes of deep sadness, windows on a soul that is already in hell.
Vaughan-Lawlor conveys a touching melancholy, a yearning for an impossible escape, that crucially shifts the balance between brutality and beauty in O’Rowe’s writing. The play ceases to be shocking and becomes more acutely sorrowful. It is as if Vaughan-Lawlor has allowed O’Rowe to find the more humane sympathies that run beneath the violent energies of his work. It will be fascinating to see whether this re-visiting and re-imagining of his first successful work opens up new paths for his future plays.
Howie the Rookie is at Project, Dublin tonight, the Everyman in Cork on Tuesday and at the Galway Arts Festival from July 22nd