Thursday 14 November 2019

Arts: The many lives of Mr O'Rowe

Busy time: Mark O'Rowe
Busy time: Mark O'Rowe
Spike Milligan

Sophie Gorman

Playwright and scriptwriter Mark O'Rowe is experiencing something of a Mr Benn moment, that children's creation who would step out of a fancy dress changing room inhabiting a different character. This month, Mark steps out as 19th-century Norwegian playwright Ibsen. Next month, the doublet he will be filling will be Shakespeare's.

It certainly has been a busy time for Mark. Last autumn, he directed an award-winning production of his own new play Our Few and Evil Days at the Abbey Theatre, starring Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack. Since then, he has been busy adapting four of Shakespeare's war dramas, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2) and Henry V, into an epic unified work of dramatic action that begins a major tour in May ( But first, he's bringing a new version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler to the Abbey stage, opening next Wednesday (

"With Shakespeare, you can't improve on his writing, so my job has been to find a through-line to make the plays into one work that speaks to us now today. Ibsen has been different process altogether."

Is that because it involves him actually writing? "Yes, actually writing," laughs Mark.

Irish theatre audiences will remember a 2008 production of Hedda Gabbler at the Gate Theatre in a version by Brian Friel. But amongst those who attended, you wouldn't have found Mark. "No, I've never seen it. I didn't realise then its worth."

This new production stars Catherine Walker as Hedda in a cast that includes Jane Brennan, Peter Gaynor, Declan Conlon and Keith McErlean.

How did this production come about? "Years ago, Annabelle [Comyn, director of Hedda] asked if she could do a workshop of one of my plays From Both Hips. I said yes and could I come down to have a look. I had just finished a rewrite of Crestfall [Mark's first play to premiere at the Gate Theatre] for the published collection of plays, and Annabelle read it and wanted to properly stage it. We tried to work it out but doors kept closing in our face at every turn. But we did decide then that we wanted to do something together.

"Over the years, though, I have become incredibly precious about my new original writing, wanting to always direct it first myself. It's an utter selfishness, I want the experience of discovering the play through rehearsing it myself first. This meant it wasn't going to be a new play that we did together, so we needed something else. One day we hit upon Hedda Gabler and it was somehow dead easy from then on."

Are you a huge Ibsen fan? "Actually, I didn't know him that well at all. In latter years, I had seen the Pan Pan version of A Doll's House, which I loved, but didn't realise how irreverent it was until I subsequently read the play. My wife and I went to see Ghosts in the Almeida Theatre in London, this extraordinary Richard Eyre production. And I found myself just thinking this guy Ibsen is extraordinary.

"With many translations, they are quite faithful and as such, they are quite didactic and the text becomes quite stilted. But once you get past that, the emotional and thematic richness you find beneath it is extraordinary and the underlying narrative of Ibsen's writing is about as dense as you can get. These plays are maybe more complex than even the best of plays we see nowadays."

Is this Mark O'Rowe's Hedda Gabbler as opposed to Ibsen's Hedda Gabbler? "That's a good question. I haven't adapted a play before like this where everything that happens and is said in the original still has to happen and be said. It is not about changing stuff for the sake of changing stuff.

"The main thing I think I have done is introduce much more fluidity to the text, hopefully it feels like people actually speaking to one another rather than formal speeches made to an invisible audience. And hopefully you will get a sense of my writing and the rhythms that are recognisably mine."

So what is Hedda Gabbler about in a nutshell? "It's about a woman coming home from her honeymoon having married the wrong man. She's very dissatisfied and catastrophic… jaysus, I don't know, it's impossible to sum it up in a couple of lines. It's about a woman who feels trapped by a patriarchal society but also by her own pathology.

"These limitations of the society of the time are very real but she is equally ruined by her own self-destruction, there is something pathological about it. You can't just blame it on society or men, she's as much to blame. You can't solve Hedda Gabbler, that's why people compare her to Hamlet, you can't just say oh she's mad and that's why she is the way she is."

Sophie's choice

1 One Terence Alan Patrick Sean Milligan, aka Spike Milligan, had huge Sligo connections and this weekend there will be a festival honouring the man and also highlighting how comedy can be used to break down stigmas surrounding mental health. Richard Herring and The Lords of Strut are in the line-up.

2 Limerick's own Kevin Barry will be one of the headline acts at this year's Eigse Michael Hartnett festival in Newcastle West, commemorating the poet in his hometown from next Thursday. And Barry will be joined by actor Pat Kinevane, author Joseph O'Connor and the great poet Peter Fallon.

3 Gird your loins for the 12 Points Festival in Project Arts Centre next week. Twelve cutting-edge acts from 12 different European countries over four nights, united by a drive to reinterpret any fixed notions about the word 'jazz'. Highlights include Norwegian piano trio Moskus and Swiss group Hildegard Lernt Fliegen.

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