Reviewed during the original run, 4th July 2007.
Mark O’Rowe’s re-adoption of the monologue was not without risks, given his previous mixed fortunes with the form. His first monologue play Howie the Rookie, featuring back-to-back monologues by two surburban Dublin thugs, has enjoyed enormous success since its premiere in 1999 and was revived last year in the Peacock’s ‘4 x 4’ season. His monologue play for women (Crestfall), however, produced by the Gate Theatre and directed by Garry Hynes in 2003 played to poor houses and critical ire. In it, three rural Irish women succumb unremittingly to the the basest of vile instincts including bestiality, and male violence. Terminus revisits the character-types of its predecessors.
O’Rowe divides up his one hour and forty-five minute play into three cycles of monologues delivered by three characters called A, B & C (two women and a man). No other information is given in the programme or text apart from the characters’ ages and thus we are forced to pay particular attention to the oral communication. The most striking thing about the text, despite its prose-like appearance on the page, is its unrelenting rhyming from sentence to sentence and phrase to phrase. It has a Joycean quality and O’Rowe appears to revel in the stricture that he has set himself. Some of the rhyming apears self-consiously absurd and occasionally he sets up sentences that appear to have no rhyming possibility at all, but every time he manages to extricate himself from the convulution. O’Rowe directs the whole thing with a great sensitivity to the rhythms provided by the rhyming. At times the language assaults; at others it draws us in, plays with us and spits at us with invective. But at all times the author’s mastery and skill is on display. Listening to it, one perhaps needs to adopt musical terminology to make sense of its theatrical power, sensing at times that it has the qualities of both cantata and fugue.
It is not just the mastery of the author/conductor, though, that is on display. The three actors (Andrea Irvine, Eileen Walsh and Aidan Kelly) give virtuoso performances, to continue this musical analogy. They are both instruments and players through which this musical text is interpreted. Performing such a text appears extraordinarily difficult as it demands of the actors to recover at times from moments of recounted violence that creep up out of nowhere and send the audience reeling. For instance, character C, played by Kelly, ingratiates himself Howie-the-Rookie-like with his hapless bravado until the point that he reveals he is a sadistic serial killer and recounts one instance of his heinous crime in graphic detail. The audience is stunned into silence. At his next outing, Kelly, however, manages to hook us back into a quasi-sympathy for his own analogous devil of a character. Similarly Andrea Irvine (as character A) starts out her take as the victim of violence before recounting an incident in which she too lashes out, seemingly uncharacteristically, with a savagery for which we have not been prepared. Eileen Walsh, who turns out to be character A’s daughter, is spared those transitions and is able to sustain our sympathy throughout with a performance of the utmost sensitivity. Thus, O’Rowe provides these actors with a script that permits them to display their talent and skill without the clutter of dialogue and realism.
The production, designed by Jon Hauser, is set inside a gilt stage frame with shards of glass still attached. Some of those shards on the floor act as platforms for the three actors. It is a clearly violent metaphor for the world of savagery they recount. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is sparse and illuminates the three characters to instigate in turn their storytelling. The cues are timed to coincide with each of the shared sentences that link the three sets of monologues. As a theatrical experience, one is never fully drawn into the stories as they are all written in the past tense. Instead our principal focus is on the virtuosity of the practitioner, with O’Rowe jolting us out of his mesmerising narrative with two graphically violent tales that set us squirming in our seats. We can only marvel at the author’s craft and the consummate skills of his interpreters.
Brian Singleton is Head of Drama at Trinity College Dublin.