‘Terminus’ is back at the Peacock in Dublin. This article was first published in the Sunday Tribune on January 13, 2008.
It is six hours before Mark O’Rowe’s play, ‘Terminus’, opens in New York. The cast are doing the technical rehearsal. They’ve never been in the theatre before.
Eileen Walsh is standing in a dim crossbeam, shrouded in mist, talking out to the audience. Mark O’Rowe is coughing. A technician is talking loudly. A couple of others are looking at dimly-lit laptops, or moving quietly through the gloom, fixing things. The two other actors, Andrea Irvine and Aidan Kelly, are sprawled on the stage, each straddling a large shard of (mock) glass, looking bored.
“The drill for several years has been bed alone, then tears.” Eileen Walsh plays against the rhythm of O’Rowe’s verse. She lets the rhyme announce itself, as if her character were unaware that there were anything distinctive about her speech.
This performance isn’t about her. It’s about lights and set, making sure cues are right and changes are sharp. The crew are under pressure. They’ve got a window of just a few hours to reassemble a show that was designed for the Peacock Theatre in this quite different space in New York’s Public Theatre.
And yet Walsh is rivetting. I’ve seen the play before, and don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of seeing it again, on opening, tonight. Yet I wait for the end of her monologue, a piece of vertigo-inducing verse as her character’s night out culminates in some literal hyjinks atop a crane. She leaves the crane’s cab and walks out along the arm. A gust of wind, and then, frantic:
“I bounce off the edge of the arm and fall and twist and turn and spurn the earth’s unstoppable rise by closing my eyes.”
And then a creature composed of worms appears and catches her and bears her off. I slip out of the theatre, into the corridor. A young woman in a white tutu barges through another door and past me into a neighbouring theatre space, from which 1970s disco music is blaring.
Eileen Walsh has had a fabulous year at the Abbey, easily the best thing about three very strong shows, ‘Saved’, ‘Terminus’ and ‘The Playboy’. But for the month of the original run of ‘Terminus’, she came close to adopting the maudlin nightly routine of her character. One night early in the run, she dried on a line. She got through it – something came in place of the actual line, and the show went on. Probably barely anybody noticed. But it led to panic attacks.
“There were nights when I went home and I was crying. As soon as the show was finished (each night), I was sick with worry about the following night. I couldn’t get rid of the fear of it at all.”
And the script didn’t make it any easier.
“I’ve never felt more alone on stage. This is about three people in a terminus, in an area where they have no connection, where they are so lost. It really feels like that on stage. It’s as lonely as a spotlight can feel.”
Paradoxically, the stage fright helped her with her character. She recognised that this bout of fear and loneliness could be the bedrock for the young woman in O’Rowe’s play, “who is that empty and that low and that vulnerable…”, a woman who is so vulnerable that she falls in love with a winged demon made of worms.
She has to fight the temptation to obsess about her lines.
“I have to remind myself to empty everything all the time, to trust that it’s there.
“I’m still terrified. But now I’m much more willing to just fall.”
I ask Mark O’Rowe to describe his play.
“Oh f***. Oh man. What’s it about?” He grimaces, then laughs.
“It’s three stories, all of which begin in a fairly realistic world, but all of which quickly take off into a supernatural, fantastical narrative.
“One of them is about a young woman who goes on a dark adventure with a demon made from worms, from the underworld. Another character is a serial killer who sold his soul to the devil to be a great singer and was cheated by the devil (played by Aidan Kelly). Then there’s a middle aged woman who’s trying to prevent a girl being harmed by some bad people (Andrea Irvine).”
And so I ask him to explain where this all came from.
“I had two images in my head for ‘Terminus’. One was a woman getting knocked down by a truck, getting pulled under the wheels, and the other was someone falling from a crane.
“I suppose I felt that would happen near the end but, as it hapened, it hapened very early.
“Literally, I was writing her story and I got to this point where she fell off the crane, and it was very near the beginning, so I literally had no choice but to find some way out of her hitting the ground and dying. So something caught her.”
And so he had to decide what had caught her, and that became the winged wormed demon.
“There wasn’t an intention there to write a fantastical play, it just went that way.”
And why is it in rhyme?
“I accidentally rhymed something and read over it and thought, ‘that’s kind of cool; I’ll try it for a few pages and see how it goes’. And it went from there.”
On his first day in the job as director of the Abbey, Fiach MacConghail phoned Mark O’Rowe.
“I knew the future of the Abbey was dependent on having writers like Mark O’Rowe in the building”, says MacConghail.
“There’s this question about the Abbey repertoire, the Irish theatre repertoire. ‘Howie the Rookie’ is a part of the Irish theatre repertoire. It was one of those pieces that blew apart (Irish) storytelling and theatre making in the 1990s. And the Abbey had nothing to do with it.”
So MacConghail decided to revive ‘Howie’, and subsequently took on ‘Terminus’. It’s taken two years to get it to the point of playing on the international stage, but that was always MacConghail’s intention.
Irish writers have increasingly looked to England to premiere their plays: Conor McPherson, Marina Carr, Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry have had plays staged in London before Dublin, as was the case with ‘Howie the Rookie’, which had its first production at the Bush Theatre. MacConghail wants the Abbey to be able to “support a writer’s career by extending the life of a play”. That means allowing the play time to develop – ‘Terminus’ had a week in workshops at the Abbey long before it faced an audience – and being prepared to travel with it.
‘Terminus’ is in New York for two weeks, at a small festival at the Public Theatre called “Under the Radar”. It will play in Edinburgh next summer, and may have a London run. Yet it played in Dublin for just four weeks, and didn’t tour in Ireland. Should the Abbey be giving a new Irish play to a foreign public before it’s been fully presented to our own?
“My ultimate responsibility in this instance is not to the audience, it is to Mark O’Rowe.”
This is about the Abbey attracting and cultivating top writing talent, he says.
“You can see the signal we’re sending out with Mark O’Rowe in New York. He trusted us and gave us his play. And within a year it’s going to be seen in two important cultural contexts, New York City and the Edinburgh Festival.”
(And in any case, he says, 85-90 per cent of the funding for the tour has come from outside the Abbey, most of it from Culture Ireland.)
Everybody here wants one thing: for ‘Terminus’ to be invited back for a longer run in New York.
“Any hopes have a roof on them”, says Mark O’Rowe. “Broadway is the motherload of what can happen in New York, but ‘Terminus’ is not that kind of play. It’s a play that works better in a small theatre. It’s just not the type of subject matter that a mass audience likes.”
But it could work well in a larger off-Broadway venue, such as one of the other theatres within the Public’s five-theatre complex. For this to happen, it will need the cooperation of a small group of very influential (mostly) men: the critics.
Mark O’Rowe and Aidan Kelly know what this is like. They were here before, with ‘Howie the Rookie’, in 2001.
Aidan Kelly recalls arriving for that tour with his co-actor in ‘Howie’, Karl Shiels: “Two very green young fellas turned up at JFK airport in bermudas and t-shirts in minus ten degrees celcius, and proceeded to wow New York.
“We played one night, the reviews came out, and people were being beaten away with sticks. There were no seats to be had. We were getting flown to LA for movie auditions.”
Kelly and Shiels had an audition for ‘Black Hawk Down’. They were in the office of the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. The casting director told them to duck down behind chairs and have a mock gunfight. They went at each other, all guns blazing. Rat-a-tat-tat, went Shiels from behind one chair. Bang bang bang, went Kelly from behind the other. (They may have been even more convincing.) The casting director lobbed a grenade towards Shiels. Kaboom! Shiels threw himself ferociously against the wall, as if his career in Hollywood depended on it. But it wasn’t a wall. It was a thin screen, and Shiels went straight through it, and collapsed into a cabinet holding Bruckheimer’s collection of Oscars. They didn’t get the parts.
‘Howie the Rookie’ was due to return for an extended run in New York. Two weeks before it was due to open, the union, Equity, refused them permission, and the run collapsed. (American Equity is notoriously protective of its own actors’ work space.)
Kelly is philosophical. “We would have opened in Greenwich Village on September 10, 2001, so we were closing the next day anyhow. So fate just said, look, leave it.
“These things come and go. It was lovely to have that froth around us for a while.”
The man who was chiefly responsible for the success of ‘Howie the Rookie’ was one Ben Brantley, theatre critic at the ‘New York Times’.
The play was “thrilling” and O’Rowe was “fierce with talent”, he wrote. It was “one of those rare, shiver-making instances in which language seems to become truly physical”, and Brantley felt “that priceless, delirious high that comes from hearing words made flesh”.
Seven years later, Brantley recalls the visceral impact the play had on him.
“I felt ‘up’ in a way that I rarely feel at the theatre in New York. I was totally exhilerated by it. It’s rare that language becomes that supercharged, that dynamic, in New York theatre today.”
So could an O’Rowe play transfer to Broadway? He hesitates.
“The downtown audience (at the Public, for example) has more open ears, and patience, than a Broadway audience…
“But O’Rowe certainly has the kind of arresting talent to command a Broadway audience.”
Brantley is not on the roster to review ‘Terminus’ – one of his colleagues is doing it instead. Brantley hopes to see it anyway.
Eileen Walsh has been in New York before too – four years ago, on her honeymoon. (They stayed at the newly rebuilt Milennium Hilton, where they were proudly shown into a honeymoon suite with fabulous big windows, overlooking Ground Zero.)
“I remember us walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and me saying, imagine coming back to work here…”
By the end of the night on Wednesday, after a rousing curtain call for the actors, it is clear that ‘Terminus’ is going to be a hit at this festival. So Walsh could be coming back to work here again. Who knows, maybe, some day, she may even find herself playing soldiers (or nurses?) in an Oscar-winning Hollywood producer’s office.
Follow up article, first published in The Sunday Tribune, January 20, 2008
It’s not the end of the line for ‘Terminus’
“I’m kicking myself for not making it a four-week run.
“It’s a piece that American audiences are almost afraid of. They love it, but it’s so intense that they don’t think anybody else can take it.”
He said the play would “definitely have a life on tour” as a result of the interest shown in it by international festival directors.
“We have gone another mile towards really establishing Mark O’Rowe in the New York theatre world.”
Other reviews were far more positive than the New York Times, but have far less clout.
Backstage, an online theatre magazine, wrote that Terminus was “a rare theatrical experience, one where a master storyteller can shock you, impress you, disgust you, and make you appreciate not only that the play is over but also that you survived it (apparently) unscathed”.
The three actors, Eileen Walsh, Andrea Irvine and Aidan Kelly, “deliver incredible performances that leave you raw and wounded”, wrote Backstage’s Jerry Portwood. In another rave review, on theatermania. com, Dan Bacalzo singled out Andrea Irvine for her “absolutely devastating” final monologue.
For nytheatre. com, Ivanna Cullinan said Terminus was “the finest kind of storytelling” and “exerts a pull that is irresistible”.
She made two pertinent critical points:
“In certain ways, the piece shouldn’t work. The writing delves into a focused exploitation of various rhyme strategies yet it manages not to become subject to them. . . “At times the connections among the characters seem almost too connected, in a way that could be termed as ‘neat’, except that this story makes its own boundaries and has set them within such super-real parameters that, of course, things fit in a way our mundane reality denies.”
As I wrote here when Terminus premiered at the Abbey last summer, both the rhyme and the fantastical narrative were so extraordinary that, like pyrotechnics, they threatened to overwhelm the drama of the piece. But the audacity and skill with which O’Rowe hewed his story out of those materials, and the compelling humanity of both the writing and the performances, rescued the play from being overwhelmed.
On second viewing, in New York, I found the piece both more impressive and more moving. Perhaps because both the rhyme and the story were no longer a surprise, it seemed that the characters and the emotional drama of the play were deeper.
Despite a nervous start on opening night, no doubt due to the pressures of the eight-hour get-in, the play was quickly met with loud laughter and audible revulsion at its more extreme moments.
The actors seemed to respond to the energy of the audience; all three ultimately gave superb performances that seemed both rawer and more immediate than previously.
Edinburgh and perhaps London now await the Terminus team. I would shear another five to 10 minutes off it for its next run . . . not because it is too long per se, but because there are gags in it that could be sacrificed for the sake of pace and cohesion.
And the Edinburgh fringe audience is notoriously impatient with shows over 90 minutes. But it’s not the end of the line for Terminus.