THOUGH he’s popularly known as ‘Nidge’ from RTÉ’s hit drama Love/Hate, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor has been a much admired stage actor for many years.
He delivered an acclaimed performances in the Abbey’s production of The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui a few years back and now the Dubliner is at it again, starring in a riveting new production of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie The Rookie.
Following an acclaimed run in Dublin, the show transfers to the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork this week for a five-night stint before moving on to further appointments in Galway and Edinburgh.
The play was O’Rowe’s big breakthrough in 1999, ahead of his later hits in film (Intermission) and the theatre (Terminus). Significantly, the Tallaght writer is directing the new production himself. No less significant is the fact that Vaughan-Lawlor plays both parts in the play, that of ‘The Howie’ Lee and his enemy-turned-comrade ‘The Rookie’ Lee. It’s a risky conceit that might have gone wayward but it has resulted in one of the year’s most thrilling productions.
For Vaughan-Lawlor, the prospect of playing both parts was daunting but irresistible.
“When the idea was suggested I felt far more scared than excited,” he says. “But it’s those challenges in life that you can’t back away from. There’s no point in being an actor, or being human really, if you’re not going to take on big challenges.”
Howie The Rookie is a curious play. Tracing the lives of two young men, it blends gritty urban realism with an absurdist comic-book edge, and it’s riotously funny even while nursing a disarming pathos. All of it is driven by O’Rowe’s linguistic flourishes. Notably, this new production seems a more rounded piece than before, and the themes — especially that of the desolation of father-son relationships — come across far more poignantly.
“What is really fascinating is that Mark has made a few small but really significant changes to the original text,” says Vaughan-Lawlor. “And it’s like an older writer looking at the work of his younger self and going, ‘we can change this, we can shift the emphasis onto something more mature or more complex, and we can do that just by changing this word here or changing that line here.’ And that was really amazing — to see this man with more life experience, and a man who has his own family now, shifting the dynamics and the points of emphasis in the narratives in both men. The depth was already in the play but these changes have brought even greater depth.”
A concern before the production was whether Vaughan-Lawlor’s fame as Nidge would prove difficult to shake off as he took on the parts of two young men from a similar social background. “I was initially a bit nervous because of the similarities between this world and the world of Love/Hate,” he says. “I was nervous I’d be repeating myself or that I’d be perceived to be making a lazy choice. But I never set out consciously to make these characters different from Nidge. It was about responding to the characters and trusting the text and the audience. If you’re saying, ‘oh look, how different I am,’ then that’s an actor’s ego getting in the way. It’s not about that. If you go down that road I think you’re dead.”
The fourth season of Love/Hate was shot earlier this year and will be screened in the autumn. Over the course of the show’s run, Nidge has emerged as the lynchpin of the piece, a complicated hood afflicted by conscience, waylaid by family life, and yet guided by a ruthless code. The actor says he could see the possibilities for his character’s growth when he read the script for the first season.
“We never knew if we’d even be making a second season, but even then the writer Stuart Carolan was laying down the foundations for the development of these men,” he says. “It was through Nidge that he could explore the conflict between the domestic world and the crime world, and I’ve been lucky that Stuart was happy to explore that side of it and allow the character to blossom. But that’s why he’s a brilliant writer. All these characters have open doors. He’s presenting them as complex. The minute you think that Nidge is irredeemable, he’ll do something that smacks of conscience or understanding. The next minute he’ll do something that’s chilling or crude. Stuart is always challenging the audience’s perception of who these men are.”
His duties with Love/Hate and Howie the Rookie have him spending most of the year to date in Ireland, away from his family in London.
“You have to go where the work takes you,” he says. “And I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to work both here and in England. I jump back and forth. It’s tough being away from my family, as many other people know. But I’m just very fortunate to have this opportunity and that’s the life of an actor anyway — it’s nomadic.”
The Dubliner knows all about the acting life. His father was the much respected actor, Tom Lawlor. Tom junior got his first taste when he was but eight years old, playing Boy in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Gate Theatre.
“It was a baptism of fire,” he says. “Now I realise I was witnessing something deep and complex, but as a kid I was going: ‘I don’t know what this play is on about, but it’s something really heavy’.” Baptism by Beckett hasn’t worked out too badly so far.
* Howie The Rookie runs at the Everyman, Cork, July 16-20, and at An Taibhdearc, Galway July 22-28
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