Abbey Theatre, Ciarán Hinds, Conor McPherson, David Mamet, drama, Irish theatre, Mark O'Rowe, Martin McDonagh, Our Few And Evil Days, Terminus
In October, we will travel to Dublin to see Mark O’Rowe’s new play Our Few and Evil Days, which is being staged at the Abbey. In order to get a better idea of O’Rowe’s work, I decided to read Terminus (2007), which is perhaps his best-known play (he also wrote a movie called Intermission which stars Cillian Murphy and Colm Meaney).
Terminus is set in Dublin and involves gory violence and the supernatural. It is composed entirely of monologues. No wonder then that O’Rowe has been, shall we say, bedeviled his whole career by comparisons to Conor McPherson?
I don’t think it’s a matter of direct influence by either one on the other. Instead, both seem to be part of a generation of playwrights born around 1970 who were inspired by Samuel Beckett (hence the monologues, avant-gardism and black humor). As for the gore, it comes from a Tarantino-esque diet of gritty 70s fare and horror films. In a Guardian interview, O’Rowe said,
Video came out when I was about 13. So I grew up on video nasties, cannibal movies and kung-fu flicks – I Spit on Your Grave and all that stuff.
The same is no doubt true of McPherson and of Martin McDonagh, whose work is also noted for its violence. The supernatural? Perhaps it’s that mystical brew of Catholicism and Celtic culture. Or maybe it’s too many viewings of The Exorcist and its cinematic spawn.
I am not fond of David Mamet, who has often been cited as another source of inspiration for these playwrights. Mamet has transformed himself over the years into a grumpy right-wing curmudgeon. Before turning as sour as curdled milk in silly plays like Oleanna, he founded his career on his ability to convey a certain brand of competitive urban hyper-masculinity (Glengarry Glen Ross). Definitely not my cup of tea.
That said, his influence on younger male writers such as McPherson, McDonagh and O’Rowe is palpable. Take American Buffalo (1975), a play about a junk-shop owner who sells a valuable coin to a customer, then plots with his lowlife buddies to steal it back when he suspects it was worth more than he realized. The profanity, the working-class characters with their knuckle-headed schemes, the closely-observed dynamics of masculine relationships, and the surprise violence are all familiar in the works of these younger men.
Terminus, however, is very much its own play. Generally, I prefer traditional dialogic plays to monologue plays. I want to see actors interact. But in Terminus, the monologue format (with each character in his or her own separate bubble of consciousness) allows O’Rowe to take a risk by fashioning a strange new linguistic idiom for them. The entire play is composed in rhymes. Not heroic couplet end-rhymes, but a consistent pattern of internal rhymes reminiscent of hip-hop:
So, purpose-filled I gild myself with a second drink, sink it quick, feel its kick, and, fortified, I step outside, and stride again, my destination home.
A bottle of red and assorted treats on a tray–a selection of cheeses, fresh cream and peaches, a girls’ night in with each of us drying the other’s eyes when the other cries at the film unfolding onscreen.
The characters are three unnamed people: a woman in her forties (A), another woman in her twenties (B), and a man in his thirties (C). They speak one at a time, telling their stories, and as the play progresses, you begin to see that their lives intersect. It turns out that A is B’s mother, but they’re now estranged for a rather compelling reason. We discover that C, who seems a likable enough fellow at first, spends his evenings stalking and killing women.
My favorite story was that of B, a sad, lonely young woman whose best friend Lee is married to Lenny, a lecher who keeps making passes at B. Strangely, Lee doesn’t seem to notice this. One night they invite B. out for a beer, and an attractive man stops by their table:
Lenny and Lee make the introductions. Andy’s his name and, although I can’t claim to be gifted in conversation, we make a connection, I feel, and whatever rubbish I spiel, he understands, or appears to, at one point, clinks my glass with his, says, “Here’s to you,” and I flush, and shush!–between you and me, I’m fairly smitten, admitting the fact to myself when he puts his hand on mine…
They leave the pub and Andy dares them to steal into a building site. They make their way through a gap in the fence and climb into the cab of a crane, then onto the arm, looking out over the city lights of Dublin. Andy kisses B, but then Lee calls him back into the cab. Suddenly Lenny is sitting beside B. on the crane:
“Howdy,” he says with a loom and a leer.
“Howdy back,” I respond, and peer beyond him, searching Andy out and finding Lee’s on her knees between his legs, head bobbing, robbing him of breath, his gasps, as Lenny clasps my neck and lifts me, pulls my head to his to kiss me.
And it’s suddenly plain what tonight has been: a pantomime, the only aim to obtain me for Lenny–the fucking penny has dropped–but the biggest shock is the sudden certainty of my best friend’s complicity.
This simple, wrenching moment hits you like a punch in the gut. But gritty realism gives way to a phantasmagoric incursion of the supernatural when B., trying to escape lecherous Lenny, falls from the arm of the crane. Instead of plummeting to her death, she is caught up in the arms of a mysterious, flying creature who carries her far outside of Dublin and makes love to her. The identity of this demonic being, and his relationship to the murderous C., lies at the heart of the story.
I wonder how actors feel about monologue plays like this. On the one hand, each actor gets his or her chance to shine, to be the center of attention, to carry the entire production on his or her shoulders.
And yet the format gives them very little to do, physically speaking. Nor do they have the opportunity to play with and against each other. For the audience too, this must seem a very static format.
True, I’ve not seen it staged, but as I read it, I kept thinking that action was being subordinated to language. Best, in my opinion, to combine them, yet the fantastical elements in this play can only be recounted, not shown:
And now, passing through St. Declan’s road, having slowed after a puce-inducing dive, through the window of number five, in one of the upstairs rooms, a mother shows her child the moon which he ignores and roars in delight, tracing our racing left to right with a pointed finger, a grin which’ll linger, I’ll wager, long after his mother recovers, shocked as she was, white as she went with the shock of our swooping past.
On an initial reading, it seemed to me that O’Rowe hadn’t yet achieved his maturity in this play. The violence appears both gratuitous and overly influenced by what O’Rowe calls “video nasties” or exploitation movies. For example, A., a suicide counselor, spends two of her monologues recounting an off-putting story about her attempt to rescue a young woman from her abusive lesbian partner– an absurd caricature who goes around smashing people’s faces in with her fists and raping them with broomsticks. The tale of C., the serial killer, is only a marginal improvement.
Still there are deeper waters here. In spite of his weirdness about lesbians, O’Rowe is better than Conor McPherson at portraying female characters, and certainly more interested in doing so. B.’s story is transcendent, and explores the passages between life and death:
And here within [death’s] fist, in the midst of whatever terminus this is–a void as black as pitch, in which I now exist, it seems, as thought alone, or in a dream, I’m shown a stream of memories, which, having appeared, immediately cease to be for ever.
O’Rowe’s new play is described this way on the Abbey website:
Adele and her parents have always been close. But recently, that closeness has been tainted by an increasing sense of mistrust. Tonight, a visit from a stranger will force them to confront the terrifying reality of their relationship.
We are warned that it contains “potentially disturbing content” and is for people over the age of 16. To judge from the poster and description, this is not a monologue play, but I’m curious to see what O’Rowe has done with the language. According to an interview with Sinéad Cusack and Ciarán Hinds, the play is written in highly “naturalistic speech” with lots of interjections and people talking over each other, which demands great precision from the actors. A linguistic experiment completely different from Terminus, then. I’ll be looking to see whether O’Rowe is able to apply his lyrical gift to this unsettling domestic tale in a way that feels true.
Postscript: Turns out I was right about the impact of American Buffalo, as we learn in this interview with O’Rowe. Don’t you just love it when that happens?
I don’t know if I would be ready to see “Terminus”, OFED appeals me more… and not only for Mr. H.
I think “Terminus” would qualify as avant-garde and experimental. Definitely Off Off Broadway, LOL. I like it that this new one is not a monologue, but it sounds as though it will be difficult to follow the language with them all talking over each other. I’m hoping to obtain a copy of the play before I go.
Well, being an Spanish-Italian facilitates the understanding of people talking over each other 😀
Thank you very much for this, Linnet!! I am ashamed to say that O’Rowe didn’t mean anything to me. (Certainly even less than the three actors pictured on the cover of the book – they are faces I have seen on Irish TV.) But by cod, I love what you are describing there. THat play sounds absolutely fascinating. And I find it very Irish in its obvious concentration on language. Less doing, more talking – very Irish :-D. I’d love to see it…
McDonagh – well, I saw “In Bruges” and really enjoyed it. I think you are spot on when you say that these guys are gearing their work much more for a male audience. Inexplicably, I quite like stuff that is made for men. Hm. Weird.
Still thinking about OFED. Could be my play for the month of October, seeing that September and November are already booked.
Thanks for the great comment, Guylty! I’m intrigued that you recognized the Irish actors on the book cover. My cover of the book has three different actors, but it’s the same publisher. I bet my three are also Irish.
Mr. H. had “the smallest role ever” in the film “In Bruges.” He was the priest who gets shot in the first minute.
Last time I looked there were still seats for OFED! A chance to see some amazing talent. CH and Sinéad Cusack together is a thing of beauty.
Oh, I had no idea that CH was in “In Bruges”… (I bet you went to see it just for that one minute, eh??? ;-))
Yes, there are still tickets… I have checked a few times. I just haven’t found someone who is as enthusiastic about going as I am. Maybe I’ll just book two tickets and then see who’ll come along… And Sinead Cusack is a fabulous actress. (And much “loved” in the RArmy, too, as she played Mrs Thornton…)
Sadly my fandom only dates to 2011, so I missed out on seeing CH’s thirty-second “Bruges” role, to say nothing of certain immortal stage performances such as his turn as the Devil in “The Seafarer” on Broadway. Arrrgh!
Hope you can come because I’d love to hear your opinion of it. I’ve no doubt it will be controversial 🙂
Wot???? You only discovered CH in 2011???? Wow, that means I knew him before you did *ggg*. I noticed him in Persuasion in the 90s. Ahhh *sighs*
Have been selling Mark O’Rowe to the husband, overplaying the “written for boys” card :-D. Hope to get the tickets soon…
Well, I saw him before 2011, notably in “Rome,” and liked him a lot, but the thunderbolt of fandom did not strike until I watched “Ivanhoe” on DVD. Even then I didn’t make the connection that he was the same actor as Julius Caesar until I looked online. He’s a chameleon, which is amazing for someone with such distinctive looks.
The first time I saw him was in 1989, when I went to see Peter Brook’s movie of the Mahabharata. But I had no idea who he was and didn’t single him out as a character.
Yes, tell the husband that his idols are Tarantino and Mamet! (Also Beckett).
LOL – that might work. The hubster has always been a fan of Tarantino’s early work (True Romance), and took piano lessons with Samuel Beckett’s niece (claim to fame, haha).
It’s so funny for me to think of Beckett having a niece. He seems like a figure of myth 🙂
I saw Terminus during it’s very short run here as part of my Off-Mirvish (our version of Off Broadway) subscription. In one word, it was FABULOUS. you could hear a pin drop the entire time. The entire audience was captivated. The actors playing A, B, and C were amazing. If you get a chance, I highly recommend you see it.
If it ever comes here or to NYC, I definitely will! Thanks for the comment!
The photo didn’t disappoint, for a second I thought you may not have popped in an image of Himself! Don’t think Terminus is my cup of tea either, this new play sounds dark yet compelling. The ‘talking over’ each other sounds like my extended family getting together. Everyone trying to get a word in edgewise. Enjoy Dublin and the play.
Thanks! I think that photo is a stunner. Good thing I’ll be going to see the play more than once, so I can figure out what they’re saying 🙂 Hopefully there will not be too much blood spraying from the stage…
Interesting how we follow interjections and talking over each other much more easily when our families do it than when it’s on the stage or screen.
Terminus sounds a most extraordinary play–and the format totally compelling. I think I may have to satiate my hunger for the moment with the story in book form, as I doubt I’ll likely find a production readily available around here.
And how fortunate for you, Linnet, to travel to see one of the greats in action. Maybe just ask your seatmates on either side of you to hold you down lest you get the urge to stand up and shush the other actors on stage as Ciarán is speaking.
Yes, I don’t want anything to get in the way of that luscious voice!
I’m going to wear a button that says “CHeeky Hinds Fan” so no doubt the other members of the audience will be wary of me…
”CHeeky Hinds Fan ”~ You’re that alright! Lovely informative piece Linnet~ I enjoyed reading it. I have to confess I have n’t read any of O’Rowe’s work but you have whetted my appetite Hope you have a splendid time in Dublin and no doubt, manage more than a few words with #Himself.
Fingers crossed 🙂
You’ll feel happy to know that when I searched for reviews of “Our Few and Evil Days”, your blog was the 8th item in the list. Have fun wearing your button, you little CHeeky Hinds Fan you.
That’s great! Thanks for the good wishes. I’ve got a button for Lonneke but I don’t think I can convince her to wear it 🙂
Well, I did 😜! And Himself got a good laugh out of it…
You certainly did! Fortunately, Himself has a great sense of humor 🙂
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