‘Crestfall’, by Mark O’Rowe harks back to Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage; 1957) grinding innocence with inevitable brute realism. Tynan said of Behan: ‘While other writers horde words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.’ The same might be said of O’Rowe although his language is more contrived.
The play is a poetic piece, not only in language but in form. It’s presented as three monologues from the mouths of three women who share a day in the life of a town that hangs somewhere between Sodom and Dodge City. In form it shares a common frame with ‘Bone’ by fellow countryman John Donnelly, presently playing at the Seymour.
While it has been described as a play about redemption it is rather less cerebral than ‘Bone’. It seems more in keeping with the dark boisterous pageant of the film ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ by Sergio Leone. O’Rowe acknowledges an early obsession with such films and certainly the fate of the two children in the play carries a strong echo of the earlier cinematic piece.
Interestingly in Donnelly’s work the monologues are non contiguous but are delivered in parallel time whereas here they are corelative but are delivered in succession. The events described overlap so that had they been intertwined they might well have given rise to an effect not unlike a musical round.
The play opens with Olive, a woman who’s unopened dreams have soured and whose unfulfilled desires have festered, played with great integrity by Sophie Cleary. The story is taken up by Allison, a woman who still has hope and love despite being betrayed in both, played with aching fragility by Renai Caruso. Finally it is pitched to its rather horrendous climax by Tilly, a woman who retains courage and self respect even in the face of humiliating profligacy, played with deft charm by Danielle Jackson. All actors are recent graduates of QUT as is director Oliver Torr.
While it is understood that the text sets out the monologues as they are here presented, sequentially uninterrupted, nevertheless the format distracts in keeping track of the several characters that populate the off stage story. The form recalls Thomas’ ‘Under Milkwood’ although the verse itself seems to owe more to Hopkin’s sprung rhythm. They fit well with O’Rowe’s stylised alliteration which is achieved sometimes at the expense of character history. Some of his phrases are beautifully poetic but rather call in question the antecedents of the person uttering them. Because it is poetry as opposed to versified drama it requires considerable concentration to interpret the truncated phrase forms comprising the language in order not to be left with a mere impression of the narrative.
Poetry, as music, depends heavily on the colouring of language through pitch and tempo in order to point its meaning. In straight drama the action does much to define the motive of the words. ‘Milkwood’ is such a case requiring great precision in diction and a variety in vocal timbres in order to drive the narrative. In this performance diction was, apart from Cleary, soft and at times lost. There was also a similarity in the timbre of the actor’s voices accounted for by their closeness in age apart from anything else. It resulted in a vocal similarity that probably should have been avoided in such a concentrated word play even though they didn’t have to jointly occupy the space. The use of pitch and tempo to inflect meaning was limited and in several instances delivery outpaced the sense.
Certainly O’Rowe shares with his fellow playwrights a wonderful Irishness which is hallmarked in its intense imagery The images he conjours up are as vivid as they are terse, painting a scene from which all vestige of beauty has been scrubbed even from the humanity that inhabit it. It serves to leave the final simple image of hope to ring out like a solitary bell upon the heath.
Yeats first found this Irish voice in Synge, ‘it had to be … an English not altogether English, but speech such as one hears in the mouths of the people of Ireland … where the imported language is profoundly influenced by it.’ As a body of writers they have certainly attained that and Irish is no longer in any danger of being lost. Like Synge, O’Rowe allows ‘wild and turbulent people and places to take possession of his imagination … into a world so crammed with violence and energy, so melodious with wild splendour that one feels one has parted the curtains of a quiet lamp lit room and seen the lightning leap among the hill-tops at the dawn of day.’ (M. MacLiaaoir; J. M. Synge; 1958).
Those words are echoed in the lighting design of Ben Hamley and the set of Owen Kunnen as the figures of the women move almost ghost like in the muted light and amongst ill defined objects draped and slung in calico cloth. It was very simple and effective. The symbol of the future hung suspended for a while, now and then in doubt, but ultimately emancipated from the wretchednees of hopelessness through the dignity of survival.
O’Rowe’s wild melodies found their echo in the punctuated soundscape of Mel Pesa.
by Mark O’Rowe
Venue: Tap Gallery | 278 Palmer St Darlinghurst
Dates: 25 September to 6 October (press opening night 26th Sept)
Times: Mon to Sat 8pm, plus Thur, Sat & Sun matinees 2pm
Tickets: $22 / $17 conc. Preview and Tuesdays $15
Bookings: www.moshtix.com.au or 1300 438 848