Vaughan- Lawlor finds humanity in savage tales of the Rookie
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