Howie The Rookie – Toby Schmitz makes a silk purse from a sow’s ear. (Theatre Review)
Howie The Rookie
Red Line Productions and Strange Duck Productions
Old Fitzroy Theatre 30 September to 25 October. You can buy your tickets here.
In his book ‘Theatre,’ David Mamet, unsurprisingly argues the case against the engaged theatre director, claiming that the biggest contribution they could possibly make is to get out of the way of The Words. Actually, he doesn’t stop there, he goes on to suggest the set designers, lighting designers, sound artists and costume designers should be equally invisible when compared to the holy text (or perhaps I should say HIS text, because that little point screams from every page of the book) and that actors should think very little about what they are doing, and concentrate solely on delivering The Words. It’s a huge shame Mamet didn’t get to see the Toby Schmitz directed production of Howie The Rookie currently at the Old Fitz, because it is a perfect example of a very ordinary play completely rescued by the talent of the performers, a point made all the more powerful because Mark O’Rowe, rather than channel his rich Dublin heritage in writing Howie the Rookie is obviously channeling Mamet and American films. Misogyny and violence and a man telling a story about how he beats up his mates is excruciatingly dull unless – as so many brilliant Irish writers have been able to achieve – it has a context and a reason for existing, but O’Rowe doesn’t have much interest in anything other than offending his mother it seems, so Howie the Rookie as a narrative , is a very dull story about very dull people with a little bit of very dull poetry slung over the top.
However, it has a redeeming feature. It is an actors play. If you have a fine cast, and a good director, the play can be redeemed to a certain point, and in the case of the Red Line and Strange Duck Production currently showing at The Old Fitzroy Theatre, to twist Mamet’s idea, the play gets out of the way of the performances and the director, which in this case is an enormous blessing. The performance, the theatrical space, the voice coach and the director are all on display here, working the text to give us an exhibition of sorts. Mark O’Rowe’s play has received overblown praise, but taken as the oddity it is, and performed on an Australian stage more than a decade after its time, it grates less, and becomes a process of fascination as we watch actors performing, rather than disappear into any sort of story. This goes completely against Mamet’s point that theatre must engage through plotting and story telling, because what makes this production of Howie the Rookie a great production to see, is the performances and the audience holds their breath as we watch two fine actors being put through their paces by a fine director. I dropped in and out of the story (and no matter what anyone tells you, every audience member did) but the performances were gripping and if the words washed over me without actually touching me in any meaningful way, the performances permeated my soul. It’s Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry that shine here, and they manage to give passion and power to something bereft of both.
But that is the secret of Howie The Rookie – the performances, and it is riding on the back of the talented creatives that Mark O’Rowe makes a name for himself. It seems we can love theatre when the story sux and the narrative can’t hold our attention, because if the performance is thrilling, if the director has truly called forth the best in his cast, and brought together the pieces of the puzzle as well as Toby Schmitz has here then we sit enthrall, completely swept away by the magnitude of the live achievements before us. Howe The Rookie does have enough in it so that clever actors can pepper their beautifully performed dialect with crass humour and cringe worthy moments, and these end up being what we hang our hat on when we think of the text, while what we can’t forget is the spellbinding energy the two men put into the performance, and the clever little nuances – the turn of a head, the dimming of lights at a crucial moment and the steely steady gaze of the silent accomplice on stage as the other performs – that Schmitz puts into the production. It bodes well for more productions by Red Line (please no more crappy plays when there are so many good ones) and becomes downright exciting when we think of what might happen with a powerhouse play. But most of all, it serves as a startling reminder that theatre is not just a good story entertaining an audience, but rather a collective group of talented individuals working out how to make something come alive with a vibrancy that can’t help but seduce any human witness to the spectacle. It definitely helps if you have a good play, but as Howie The Rookie proves, it is not as necessary as we might think.