By David Hennessy
“You’ve a lot of control in theatre and your collaborators in theatre are exactly that, they’re collaborators. Everyone has one goal that they’re aiming towards whereas with film some of the collaboration isn’t so much collaboration if you know what you mean,” says playwright and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe when asked if it feels good to be back in the theatre world. Mark’s screenwriting credits include highly rated Irish films Intermission and Perrier’s Bounty, Boy A starring Andrew Garfield and last year’s British Independent Film Award winning Broken.
However, it was in theatre that Mark O’Rowe first came to prominence, winning the George Devine award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Irish Times/ESB Theatre award with his second play Howie the Rookie when it premiered at London’s Bush Theatre in 1999. Since then his play Terminus, a series of interlocking monologues which earned rave reviews when it opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin has gone on to win a Fringe First.
However, Mark has returned to the stage and his earlier work of Howie the Rookie to direct Love/Hate star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in both lead roles with a production that has been acclaimed in Ireland ahead of coming to Edinburgh Festival Fringe: “The response has been fantastic. Whatever play you do, you take a risk putting it on and particularly doing an older play in a new way. You kind of cross your fingers and hope for the best but it’s gone down fantastically here (Ireland) anyway so I’m thrilled to be on the other side of it.
“I didn’t direct it in 1999 but I was there and I was quite involved so to direct it this time, I was slightly ahead of the game. Then I suppose the big thing of doing it with one actor, that was the big difference and that was the big risk as well but it’s not that I felt we could pull it off, I knew Tom could pull it off but as a concept, I felt it would work in a way that it mightn’t work in something like film.
“In theatre, if you’re honest enough with setting out your stall and kinda saying ‘this is a show where one actor plays two characters’, as long as your honest enough about that, the audience will follow you there and then of course that raises a lot of thematic questions and lots of poetic moments or moments that loop back upon themselves or reflect upon themselves and I hope a lot of that kind of stuff will come out of it and it seems to have.”
Howie the Rookie is two monologues with the audience hearing two sides of a story, from Howie and then from Rookie who have previously been played by two different actors. Mark explains how the idea to have one actor command the stage for the entire length of the play came about: “I had seen Tom in a couple of shows here in Dublin and he was kind of the best thing since sliced bread really. I just looked at Tom as someone of a hugely powerful and singular talent, like a young Mark Rylance, so literally when he was mentioned.. He was the first name mentioned by the producer in literally the first conversation we had about doing it and I thought: ‘Great, fantastic’. Then I thought it would impair him because it’s a play of two halves and two roughly equal halves. You can’t have one actor being much better than the other. It will unbalance the whole thing so you need to find two people who are of similar ability but the idea of Tom being so good, I thought he had too much potential and too much skill just to play one part. I kind of thought one part would be less of a challenge to him. That’s when I started toying with the idea so it was literally on the day it was mentioned to me. I kind of thought about other actors and I had that kind of eureka moment which was: ‘What if he was to play both of them?’ He can’t be better than himself but it is that thing of asking someone who can lift 20 stone to life 12 stone. What’s the point if he can do 20? Get him to lift the whole thing. That was the theory anyway,” Mark laughs.
Now that this production has been such a success, is Mark inclined to revive more of his earlier plays or perhaps adapt one for the screen? “I don’t know. In the early days when we first did Howie, I got lots of offers to adapt it. Actually several people wanted to buy the rights to it but I wouldn’t let somebody else adapt it and I didn’t particularly want to adapt it myself. Even now, I wouldn’t be particularly… Unless somebody came along and offered me a bucketful of money, I don’t think I would have any desire at the moment.
“In terms of reviving older plays, I don’t know. I suppose it’s not in my nature to try and push new productions. It’s in my nature to write new work. That’s the thing that I’m compelled to do and directing jobs are something that come outside of that. If an earlier one was offered to me, I would definitely think seriously about it but I wouldn’t go wanting to do that myself.”
Broken is the third film penned by Mark to feature Cillian Murphy which tells you something of how highly rated his writing is by the Hollywood star. Recently released on DVD, Broken which also stars Tim Roth has been successful winning Best Film at last year’s British Independent Film Awards while also earning more nominations than any other film: “You enjoy that success at an extreme remove in that you write something and then somebody else directs it and then it has a life outside of your involvement. You get the odd compliment about it but it’s something that you finished your work on several years before and you feel an ownership only up to a point because obviously the director takes your script and makes a particular film that is particular to his sensibilities. I was very happy with the film but it is at a remove.”
Saying this, does Mark mean that as great as films like Intermission, Perrier’s Bounty and Broken are, that he feels they could be better? “No, it’s never that because I think it would be very presumptuous to say it could be better or I could do it better or whatever. It’s not really about that. I suppose artistically it’s just feeling that little bit more satisfied about your level of contribution or your level of ownership or your level of the vision you saw in your head being put onto screen. For John Crowley to direct something like Intermission, it’s never a question of him doing it better or worse. It’s his vision of that script, do you know what I mean? And I would like to do a couple where it was my own basically.”
For the full interview, see the July 27 print edition of The Irish World.
Howie the Rookie can be seen at Assembly Hall, Rainy Hall, Mound Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2LU from Thursday August 1 to Sunday August 25 (although not 7,12,19) at 12.40 pm. Box Office 0131 623 3030. www.assemblyfestival.com
Broken is out on DVD now.