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Mark O’Rowe - Terminus

“That could be the truest thing I’ve said all day,” Mark O’Rowe admits at the end of our conversation prior to rushing off to catch his flight home. Which, considering the Irish playwright has been doing press interviews all day, makes you wonder about what exactly he’s been coming out with before now. Especially given the fantastical nature of his most recent play, which Dublin’s Abbey Theatre brings to The Traverse Theatre as part of its Edinburgh Festival Fringe season. Because, as the internal rhymes of Terminus spin into ever wilder flights of fancy in its three connecting monologues, the truth it reaches verges on the unbelievable.

“I was wondering what would happen,” O’Rowe relates earlier on from the above pronouncement, “if you took someone up a crane after a drunken night. So I took this girl up the crane and had her fall off it. But I knew if she hit the ground she’d be dead, so I couldn’t have that, and I genuinely didn’t know what territory I was going to go into. As it turned out, it was the supernatural.”

The end result starts out like some dirty realist booze-fuelled yarn of nasty chucking-out time fights and desperate little trysts, common enough in terms of attention-seeking, and exaggerated for sure, but nothing you haven’t heard before. Within seconds, however, the rug is pulled from under us and we’re in some metaphysical landscape where devils and angels run wild. The end result is some beautiful-ugly hybrid of Orpheus In The Underworld and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, delivered in a bare-knuckle pulp fiction style that’s in-bred with a dog-eared kitchen-sink ordinariness, but at its centre is as visionary as they come.

It’s the sort of world we’ve come to accept in special-effects friendly fantasy films and the graphic novels hat inspired them. Onstage, however, despite a predilection for magical-realist angels in the 1990s to believe in, literal depictions of such other-worldliness can appear naff. Hence the use of monologues to report what happened as with a confessional or a police statement, thus allowing the audiences imagination to do the rest.

In style, then, Terminus is not only reminiscent of O’Rowe’s own work, his 1999 breakthrough play Howie The Rookie in particular. They also reflect an ongoing wave of storytelling techniques used by contemporary Irish writers, from Brian Friel in Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney, to Conor McPherson in The Weir and St Nicholas. Terminus, however, is something else again.

“If they say it happened, then it happened,” says O’Rowe. “You’ve heard a million ghost stories or whatever, but I literally stumbled on this by hitting a brick wall. I didn’t know where to go next, but this way you can take things wherever you want, and to be able to make that leap is very liberating. If you can make people believe that a demon was flying through the sky through words alone, that can be a very powerful thing.”

Terminus opened at Dublin’s Peacock Theatre in 2007, and has already played in New York prior to its forthcoming Edinburgh run. Much of the play’s appeal may come from a trademark low-rent brutality that courses through O’Rowe’s stage work, although he’s no stranger to controversy elsewhere either. O’Rowe scripted Boy A, the 2007 TV film based in Jonathan Trigell’s novel about a young man released from prison with a new identity after committing a murder when still a child. With little recourse to monologues, it was as different a vehicle for O’Rowe as his previous screenplay for Intermission, starring Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

“The stories come out unconsciously,” O’Rowe says, “and I’m not sure why they come out the way they do. Anything can happen. One of these days I’ll get around to the beauty of a flower or the beauty of true love, but we don’t have to be confined by real life. I’ve never had anything bad or violent happen to me, but I find a great beauty in descriptions of violence. I was inspired by a lot of American literature; James Elroy, Cormac McCarthy, the films of Sam Pekinpah. These guys take no prisoners, and create things that are beautiful works of art without worrying about what people think. That’s kind of the way I want to write. Someone said to me recently that my plays are all about shame and the fear of shame. If I look deep, I think there’s a small element of truth in that. Before I wrote Howie The Rookie I thought it was about being clever and not exposing yourself. Now I think you have to reveal yourself, and be honest.”

Terminus, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, previews Aug 1-2, various times, then Aug 3-24, various times

The Herald, July 24th 2008

ends

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