Mark O’Rowe’s 1999 play, ‘Howie the Rookie’, is a frantic and tangled tale set in the midst of working-class Dublin. The two monologues that comprise its narrative weave separate yet interlinking stories, full of fighting, drinking, sex, a scabies-infested sleeping mat, ambiguous omens from the Mayan gods of death, and a pair of Siamese fighting fish owned by a gangster who sports three sets of razor-sharp teeth. It’s a lot to get your head around, but Exeter-based ‘Substance and Shadow Theatre’ did an excellent job of translating the material into a thoroughly gripping performance for its three-date run.
The most striking aspect of the production was its approach to stage design. ‘Minimalist’ was very much the word of the day, with props and stage dressings entirely non-existent. In both acts, we are presented with only one character, telling his own story and nothing more. It is a testament to both the strength of the writing and the skill of the actors portraying Howie (Midge Mullin) and Rookie (Si Cook) that the atmosphere and vivid clarity of every scene shone through what could have been the limitations of a completely blank stage. Both actors drew upon an impressive physicality and array of voices to bring to life the grim, cruel and often darkly humorous world in which O’Rowe’s protagonists just about manage to scrape by (sometimes).
‘Minimalist’ was very much the word of the day
Then again, no play is perfect. I may have noticed a few wobbles in the accents here and there (although anybody who has heard my attempts at even the vaguest of Irish accents will tell you that I am in no position to judge), but this is easily forgiven, considering just how engrossing the performances were as a whole. It also felt at times that ‘Howie the Rookie’ stood on the threshold of indulging in what Katy Harrington, in her review of the play for the Irish Post, called “the same old class stereotypes,” and to an extent this is true – boozing, fighting criminals and crudely sexualised women abound. Of course, this is part of the point, as the play’s use of subjective narration is intended to set up an examination and deconstruction of these stereotypes, but it did feel at times like this commentary could have been pushed slightly further than it ultimately went.
‘Howie the Rookie’ is also a play that relies heavily on juxtaposition. The pacing of the narrative swings between bursts of intense action, followed by long periods of respite. The lighting changes utilised by ‘Substance and Shadow’ were sparing and operated in a largely symbolic context, but each one was designed to be incredibly jarring. The effect was disorientating, but combined with the hard-edged dialogue these dramatic shifts in intensity made for an exhilarating experience. The relationship between Howie and Rookie also relied on their personalities and personal lives being set at odds with one another. One of the great joys of the play is watching them stumble across the similarities and differences of their circumstances, sometimes recognising them and other times letting them pass by unnoticed, leaving the audience to connect the dots.
The often-crude tone and outward swagger of the characters may have been off-putting to some, and the more violent sequences were at times genuinely intense and difficult to sit through, but these coarser aspects of the play served to emphasise moments of genuinely touching vulnerability and insight. Despite some lapses into those typical clichés (Howie and Rookie’s misogyny doesn’t seem to be played for anything other than ironic laughs, for example) we never lose sight of these characters as human beings, or at least not entirely. The cast and crew of ‘Substance and Shadow Theatre’ didn’t lose sight of this either, and the end result – lapsing into clichés myself – was a performance packing plenty of brains as well as brawn. Unlike those Siamese fighting fish. They’re not that bright.