Back to where it all began

Mark with the star of Howie the Rookie Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Mark with the star of Howie the Rookie Tom Vaughan-Lawlor

David Hennessy chats to playwright and director Mark O’Rowe as his play Howie the Rookie returns to London, the city it premiered in back in 1999

When it premiered at Shepherd’s Bush Theatre in 1999 Howie the Rookie earned its writer Mark O’Rowe the George Devine award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Irish Times/ESB Theatre award. Since then, Dublin writer Mark has had further success in theatre with his series of interlocking monologues Terminus earning rave reviews at the Abbey and going on to win a Fringe First.

Mark has also won accolades with his screenwriting with credits that include highly rated Irish films such as Intermission and Perrier’s Bounty as well as the Andrew Garfield starring Boy A and the British Independent Film Awards-winning Broken.

Recent times have seen Mark return to theatre but this time as a director, taking charge of Howie the Rookie to direct Tom Vaughan-Lawlor of Love/Hate in both roles in his double monologue that takes the audience through an urban nightmare told from the points of view of both Howie Lee and Rookie Lee. After a successful tour of Ireland, stint at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and a run at Dublin’s Olympia, Howie the Rookie is coming back to London  when it plays the Barbican from next week.

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“A few years have passed since then,” the writer and director says of the play’s first London production back in the 90’s. “It went down very well here (Ireland) after all that time. It’s always quite gratifying and quite scary actually bringing something back. You know you’ve a great actor and you know you can do a good production but do you still think the play holds up? It was very gratifying to see that it did, or that people felt it did.”

Although previously the roles of Howie and Rookie were played by two different actors, when he knew Tom Vaughan-Lawlor who plays Nidge in Love/Hate was interested in being in the play, Mark had the idea of asking him to take on both parts. Mark thought it would be unfair to ask another actor to go up against a powerhouse like Tom and that it would be under utilising him if he was only onstage for half the show. Suspension of disbelief is needed from the audience for Tom to become both characters.

“When we first did it, it was all theory so we were definitely hoping that our instincts would be right. It’s not an exercise in showing how an actor can transform himself into two different characters through make-up or giving one limp and the other not or any of that kind of stuff. The differences between the two characters are much more subtle. You present something to the audience and say: ‘Here’s a guy, he’s the same guy in both of them but simply through how he tells his story, he’s got to make you believe that he’s two different people’.

“When I say make you believe, you have to use your own imagination and you have to enter into a contract with the actor into believing so I think it’s sort of a two way thing in that way.”

Ahead of the play travelling to London and then New York, we ask if Mark has noticed cultural in how different cities have reacted? “They respond differently from place to place but they respond differently from night to night as well. The play is very funny but it’s also very dark. When I say it’s very funny, there’s a lot of behavioural stuff that you may or not find funny. There are no jokes in the play so there are no lines that require a laugh and if the energy in the audience is a slightly more upbeat energy, they will sort of choose to laugh at a lot of the stuff but then on other nights, you might get a much more listening serious audience and that’s the energy that will prevail in the theatre then.

“Tom as a performer, he’s always got to be prepared to go one way or the other and slightly tailor the performance to that. If you get a lot of laughter, you’ve got to do a lot of pausing to wait for that to end so they can hear the next line but if it’s a more quiet audience, you’ve got to play through those moments so it doesn’t sound like you’re waiting for a laugh that’s not coming.”

Mark has recently directed Tom in his latest play Our Few and Evil Days at Dublin’s Abbey, a production that also featured Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack. Does Mark see himself working with Tom again? “I love Tom, yeah. If whatever I write has a character that’s not a million miles away from his age or physique or gender or whatever, he would be the first door I’d knock on definitely. We have a good rapport and he’s just brilliant, he’s amazing so why wouldn’t you go to the best first? Even the next thing I write, I would very seriously think of having a character who would be of his general type just as an excuse to work with him again.”

For the full interview, see the November 15 Irish World. 

Howie the Rookie runs at The Barbican November 19-29. For more information, go to http://www.barbican.org.uk/ or http://howietherookie.com/.

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