Thank you to the STC’s artistic directors for organising this visiting production from the Abbey Theatre. They – Upton & Blanchett – write in the program that the first thought was to create a home-grown production of this compelling and imaginative play by Mark O’Rowe. But instead they thought allowing us to see the original production, in this instance, would be more potent. It would be hard to disagree – how could any other company get near trumping this! It would be like any other theatre company in the world trying to create a matching version of Benedict Andrews’ The Season at Sarsaparilla. We, from Sydney, would scoff. Theatre, I have come to observe is most often a home-town art. No matter how high-tech the world gets, there is something about the theatre’s marriage of spoken word to community that more than often imbeds it in the local.
It is for the same reason Upton & Blanchett invited the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage Country to visit Sydney, rather than tour the MTC version. Anyone who saw it did not complain. While to our tastes the script was a bit soapy, the production – the ensemble acting and gently engineered directing - presented to us contemporary American theatre-making at its best. And it was a knock-out.
Here we have Irish theatre making at its best. And, again looking into the program notes, one finds an interesting essay in the current fashion in Ireland for the monologue. Terminus features three characters who speak in highly-coloured soliloquies, each alone in their heads and life-encounters, but their story-lines inter-lapping as they unfold. The language is dazzling – reminding us of an Irish tradition that takes in Dylan Thomas, Sean O’Casey and all the way back to the beginnings of the great Celtic languages (Brittany, Scotland et al). But this, here, is the language of 21st century Dublin: a hard, unsentimental modern city where it seems cruelty is not uncommon and words themselves can also be bludgeoning.
I am not going to write a lot today. I want to get this up. My pressing desire is this: in experiencing this production of Terminus, I felt I got some insight into why – while I insist on respecting it – Baal did not make much of a mark on me. What I mean is, you take the dazzling production (spare and sophisticated) away from Baal, and what have you got. Some also-ran actors, half-caring about the words they speak. Or so it seemed to me. I think what worked against me was a feeling that the acting was unimportant (compared to the directing and design). I mentioned in a previous post, coming home from Baal to the shock at the quality of the writing of the words to the songs (found in the program). How much more of Simon Stone and Tom Wright’s script was good? I don’t know. It never got to me. Here in Terminus, with nothing on stage but three fine actors and their words, you can’t escape what they have to say. It’s riveting, you zare grabbed by the throat and those hands never let you go till the lights go down at the end. Sometimes a touch over the-the-top, but better to be shaken and stirred than a glass of flat lemonade.
So lesson one: groovy staging can rarely replace a quality script in the hands of good actors. I can’t imagine anyone emerging from Terminus last night not not having been twisted inside-out by the experience. No matter how many people say they liked Baal, there have been too many ‘ho-hums’ and we need to ask ourselves why.
The second lesson is one of tone. Both Baal and Terminus are essentially bleak works. But Baal is interminably bleak – relentlessly monotonal. One singular sustained non-emotion (on perhaps a big idea) from beginning to end. Neither Australian nor German, but rather blandly ‘international’ and ”the latest’ in character. In Terminus language breeds like a disease on the vernacular (skin) of contemporary Dublin street-life. Whose people, when even at the meanest, rise to high poetry when they open their mouths. We are a culture of surly silences and monosyllabic grunts – that is our curse and somehow our writers have to live and work with that. What Mark O’Rowe gives us here is a climbing adventure across language – peaks and troughs. It’s a hair-raising ride: from the crudest of one-word expletives to fountains of free-flowing imagery. O’Rowe has found a way to get past realism and into a form of poetic expression that allows him to go anywhere.
While this free verse is dazzling in itself you wonder at times if it is just ‘automatic’ writing, going anywhere the subconscious wishes to take it. And that’s true in part. But what’s most impressive is that O’Rowe can also control his storyline at the same time. We fly to great heights, we come crashing down – and in the end (as I like to put it) he parks the car in the driveway at home.And turns off the lights.
What I don’t want to come from what I have been writing of late is the impression that I disrespect Tom Wright (the writer/translator). From a string of works now we can discern a very particular imagination: high intelligence, fearlessness, but also a very controlled (and dark) palette. All I want to say is that it doesn’t make for popular fare. And by that I don’t mean down market. I don’t seek to discourage the Tom Wright project and I look forward to the next installment. But let us also be reminded, that it is in the use of so much more colour that the appeal of Terminus resides. And in its primary ‘home-town’ sourcing – out of three very ordinary Dublin lives – in Terminus, a huge magnificent, gut-wrenching story is spawned.
For a more straight-forward review – here is one the USA tour.
And can I recommend this from Peter Cross who saw the same performance I did last Saturday night.