Howie the Rookie

(Kooemba Jdarra)


By Mark O’Rowe

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

Cast: Aaron Fa’aoso, Simon Hapea Professional production

The moral is if you’ve got scabies, don’t kip on your friend’s spare mattress, or there’ll be tears before bedtime.

Leah Purcell’s direction of this internationally-renowned play takes Kooemba Jdarra (or KJ, as they are now sometimes called) into yet another dimension, another forward leap for this always-innovative and vital indigenous performing arts company.

For the first time, to my knowledge at least, they are presenting a play that has not been written by an indigenous Australian. At the Edinburgh Festival seven years ago, Leah Purcell was so impressed by Mark O’Rowe’s smash hit about Irish street kids that she has adapted it to an Australian environment. It’s a valid concept, for tough kids are tough kids, and some sub-cultures transcend racial and national boundaries and speak their own universal language.

The precise vocabulary of the streets may vary from city to city, and some of the idioms may be strange to an Australian audience, but those who let themselves go with the beat, and resist the temptation to make literal sense of it all, will soon be absorbed into the rough lyrical poetry of the street rapper. Its cadences have their own beauty, its rhythms their own mesmerising effect, and although we may neither like nor care about Howie and Rookie, much less accept their vision and their ethical framework, it’s ultimately the poem that matters.

Youth must find its voice, and in this show they find it and hold onto it tenaciously. In the Friday night slums the law of the jungle rules, which means that might is right, and sexual conquest is just part of the game. “One minute people’s ya bruz, the next they’re after ya. When someone’s after ya, you’s hunted.”

The story is told in two monologues from Howie Lee (Simon Hapea) and his deadly enemy but no relation Rookie Lee (Aaron Fa’aoso). Howie and his mates catch scabies and track down the perpetrator by a process of reasoning that even Andy Dalziel wouldn’t come at, determining to gi’ him a hidin’. Along the way Howie is pursued by the buxom Avalanche, sister of one of his mates, and his story of how they both decide, after half a dozen pints, that the other is sexually repulsive, adds another dimension to lives that we may find sad but are the norm in this environment.

Simon Hapea is deadly (in every sense of the word) in his performance. His is the longer monologue, and he stalks around the stage, confronting the audience with an in-your-face presence that projects a barely-concealed sense of menace, while allowing the humour of the situations full run as well. At first his speech rhythms are annoying, with their consistent pattern of a rising inflexion, but soon they become part of the poetry, creating the time-honoured Brechtian effect of removing us from the action so that we can watch the performance as if through a hazy screen, but bringing us up sharply at specific moments of threat.

Aaron Fa’aoso is shorter, stockier, less menacing, more a figure of fun, even when he meets his nemesis and is beaten up (in mime, as the victim, with nobody else on stage). He too stalks, but lurks at the back of the stage rather than up-front and Leah Purcell has made effective us of the full stage of the Visy Theatre, using the back pillars and shadows which most productions ignore, thus giving the simple set a depth that increases the emotional impact.

Here, of course, credit must also go to production designer Tanja Beer who achieves some spectacular effects, such as randomly projecting the actors’ heads or body parts onto the back wall or on the brick columns. She obviously worked closely with lighting designer Conon Fitzpatrick, another talented local.

The big question is how well this specifically Irish play (it won the Irish Times New Play Award 2000, the 1999 George Devine Award, the 1999 Rooney Award for Irish Literature and the Herald Angel for the Best Production at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe) translates into an urban indigenous setting.

And the answer is pretty well, on the whole. The two actors have enormous stage confidence, and cope admirably with the huge physical and vocal demands made on them. The mimed fights were not quite as successful, as each in his separate way had to mime a multi-character punch-up, and it was very hard to sustain credibility. But I can’t think of any actors in Brisbane, except perhaps Scott Witt, who could have managed such a Herculean task.

In language, theme and performance Howie the Rookie is rough as guts, so don’t expect to be soothed by it. It’s certainly not West Side Story but, as the publicity material has it, more like Once Were Warriors meets Trainspotting.

Definitely not one to take your aged aunt to see, but if you’re interested in the next step that KJ are taking along the way to becoming a really important theatre company, then you shouldn’t miss it.

Directed by Leah Purcell

Playing Wednesday–Saturday until 29 April, evenings at 8pm, matinees Saturday 22, Thursday 27, Saturday 29 at 2.30pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 19th April 2006)