Did you hear the one about the living-dead serial killer who could hit a high note better than Bette Midler? Or the pack of lesbian Furies bent on performing a brutal backstreet abortion? Or how about the one involving a subterranean punch-up between avenging angels and a demon, all of whom are made entirely of worms?
No, you didn’t read all that in a hallucinatory befuddlement brought on by too much New Year’s partying. Mark O’Rowe’s play Terminus really does contain all these things. And what’s more, his yarn-spinning characters tell it with all the down-to-earth artlessness of somebody describing popping down to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk.
Not entirely artlessly, perhaps. Like an urban Under Milk Wood, O’Rowe’s prose twinkles with alliterations, assonances and sing-song rhymes, yet still manages to feel as raw as a winter storm tearing in off the Irish Sea.
Terminus, a trio of interlinked monologues told by three troubled Dubliners, was the hit of the Summerworks festival when the Toronto company, Outside the March, took it on a couple of years back. Part of its appeal, in addition to O’Rowe’s blistering way with words, was director Mitchell Cushman’s arresting minimalist staging, with audiences deliberately limited to twenty souls huddled on stage around the storytelling performers. Even when it transferred to the spacious pomp of Toronto’s Alexander Theatre and audiences swelled to 200, Cushman kept to the round-the-campfire arrangement.
With the touring production’s appearance this month at Centaur, though, it’s reverting to a more conventional staging. But as Cushman explained over the phone, the captivating nature of the piece will remain the same because “the real location is in the audience’s imagination.”
As with O’Rowe’s debut play, Howie the Rookie, Terminus is part of that remarkable tradition of drama-as-storytelling beloved of Irish writers like Conor McPherson and, on occasion, Brian Friel and Sam Beckett. Arguably, a play like Terminus shouldn’t be called drama at all: wannabe playwrights are, after all, constantly browbeaten with the injunction “show, don’t tell.” So why have audiences been venturing in their multitudes to see O’Rowe’s stories being told rather than, say, picking up a book, switching on the radio or indeed huddling around a campfire?
“I’m normally very sceptical of monologue-based shows myself, because they feel inactive,” says Cushman. “We’ve all been in the theatre when somebody starts reflecting on a memory or describing a dream they’ve had. If you put on ten shows that were interlinked monologues like this, nine of them would be pretty dreadful. The distinction I would make is that here the writing is incredibly active. You’re being taken through action-packed events that are happening in real time, right now.
“As director, a guiding principle with this play has been that I never want the performers to be ahead of the audience . Everyone’s hopefully on the edge of their seat together.”
O’Rowe first rode in on that mostly British (but also Irish) late-90s wave of what was called “in-yer-face theatre”, and included the likes of Sarah (Blasted) Kane and Mark (Shopping and Fucking) Ravenhill, as well as fellow Irishman Martin McDonagh. Influenced partly by the plays of David Mamet and the films of Quentin Tarantino, these plays were fast, furious and bristling with shock effects. Though O’Rowe’s technique has clearly become more sophisticated since Howie the Rookie, his penchant for gruelling (albeit verbal) imagery remains as strong as ever. Centaur’s current season has “shocking” as its keyword, but is it possible subscribers will get more than they bargained for here?
“It’s definitley not politically correct,” agrees Cushman, “but the content of the show has never bothered me personally. I have a pretty high threshold for dark material as long as there’s light at the end of the tunnel and the writing offers catharsis. I struggle with theatre that seems relentless in a kind of joyless way. Terminus has a kind of beauty at the other end. I feel it really earns the darkness that goes before.
“A lot of the images in the play are a metaphor for how we all deal with our own personal insecurities. If you take the serial killer as an example, he’s been given the world’s greatest singing voice by the Devil, but he doesn’t have the guts to share it with anyone. Despite the awful things that he does, he’s actually quite bashful in his way. The thing that surprised me most is that audiences tend to take to that character the most. His insecurities are relatable, even though they’ve twisted him in a pretty extreme fashion. Basically, it’s a play about exorcising demons, both literally and metaphorically.”
Terminus is at Centaur Theatre from January 20 to February 15
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.