Mark O'Rowe is best known for the verbal pyrotechnics of his monologue plays, dark narratives full of spectacular imagery and linguistic experiment. In Howie the Rookie, his 1999 breakthrough, two young men narrate an odyssey through Dublin that is Shakespearean in its poetry and Jacobean in its arc of bloody revenge.
In Crestfall three women recount an episode of corporeal corruption so vividly that when the play was first staged, at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2003, the performance was punctuated by the steady sound of seats being vacated. In 2006 O'Rowe wrote his supernatural thriller, Terminus, entirely in rhyme, giving sadists and serial killers a heightened poetry that made even the basest subject matter beautiful.
In the face of such freewheeling style and spectacular subject matter it's easy to overlook the emotional weight of O'Rowe's work. The Howie is a grieving brother, the Rookie a neglected son. The women of Crestfall are broken before they commit their own crimes. A and B in Terminus are a mother and daughter estranged, while C is a man who lacks the confidence to do anything but kill. The content may occasionally be X-rated, but the human truth that underlies O'Rowe's characters is undeniable.
O'Rowe's latest, Our Few and Evil Days, which premieres at the Abbey Theatre next week
, strips away the high style of his monologues and places the complexity of family relationships centre stage. The play concerns a family riven by “secrets, lies, conspiracies, half-truths” and an old, unspoken incident so strange it seems dreamlike.
He is aware that critics will probably talk about the new play “as a graduation, but I slightly resent the idea that a dialogue play is a progression from a monologue play, as if it is superior in some way. It’s just a different form. Having written both, I don’t see one as more complex than the other. They each have their own values.
“I mean, a single actor holding an audience’s attention for two hours is achievement in itself: you don’t have other tools to rely on, just the actor, just the language, just the story.”
If anything, O'Rowe says, he found it easier to write the dramatic dialogues of Our Few and Evil Days. "Okay, maybe not easier," he clarifies. "But I got a huge pleasure from writing it. With a monologue there is just the story that you are telling; there is nothing that exists outside that, and you have to keep on moving forward, like a shark. But a drama only shows selected scenes from the story you are telling, so you have to create several lives outside of the time frame of the actual scenes of the play.
“I enjoyed that, exploring the complexities and ambiguities of characters, how we get through life, degrees of love. It very much excited me. It’s probably something to do with getting older. I am 44 now, and it’s not that I write about my own concerns, but the things that interest me have changed.”
O'Rowe began writing plays by reading them, specifically the works of David Mamet, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. "I discovered them in that reverse order. Each one led to the other, and I discovered Mamet first through his films."
After seeing Mamet's American Buffalo, when he was in his early 20s, O'Rowe began drafting sketches of his own, short scenes, "just paying attention to dialogue, the way people spoke, the rhythm of their voices. With American Buffalo, in particular, a whole world opened up to me.
“I realised it didn’t matter that I didn’t have an English degree or a big vocabulary. I realised that writing dialogue was about paying attention to what you hear, and that was liberating to someone who was not particularly articulate. That you could actually create drama from that. It’s still my favourite thing about writing: the writing itself, finding the music and rhythm of how people speak.”
Not that O'Rowe's plays are all talk: when words fail his characters they have weapons to fall back on. The Aspidistra Code ends with a shoot-out. Made in China stages a martial-arts battle. Terminus ends with its serial killer disembowelled on a crane overlooking Jervis Shopping Centre.
O'Rowe still baulks at the shorthand descriptions that critics use to discuss (and often dismiss) his work, by comparing the plays to the films of Quentin Tarantino. "If you have a gun in your play," he says, "or an act of violence or an exuberance of language, people bring up Tarantino. It's just lazy."
The plays are frequently shocking – bestiality and backstreet abortions
have had a look-in, as have snuff movies and sadomasochism – but O'Rowe says he has always been more interested in the capacity of these stories to make us feel. "I mean, Terminus. You could say that it is just this fantasia of shocking events, appealing to the part of us that enjoys special effects. But you have something true and emotional to anchor that. Otherwise it's just spectacle."
On the surface the subject of Our Few and Evil Days is far more accessible than a precis of the events in Terminus, say, might lead an audience to believe. Although more traditional in form, it is also more subtle in its thematic revelations. O'Rowe is directing the production himself. He also directed Terminus, in its premiere production at the Peacock, and he mounted a new production of Howie the Rookie last year with Landmark Productions, which returns to the Olympia next month.
Our Few and Evil Days presents new challenges. There is the expansive form to consider, as well as the ensemble cast, led by Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds. And this is also the first time O'Rowe's work will premiere on the main stage of the Abbey. It's not these variables that make O'Rowe nervous, however, but the fact that he still doesn't "quite know what the play is".
"When I was directing Howie I knew the play itself worked. It had proven itself. But with this I still don't even know what it is. I suppose the pleasure of directing is that you get to lead that exploration. And even when you get there – technically, narrative-wise – the more ephemeral nature of what's going on and how people will react to certain moments, that's still a mystery to you." Our Few and Evil Days is at the Abbey Theatre from next Friday until October 25th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Howie the Rookie is at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, from November 11th to 15th