Review: Our Few and Evil Days

Nevermind Mark O’Rowe’s return to dialogue, does his family tragedy for the Abbey signal a new commitment to realism? Or is anything here as it seems?

Our Few and Evil Days: “You listen to the painstaking dialogue, though, like a surveillance team hoping to catch someone in confession”

Our Few and Evil Days: “You listen to the painstaking dialogue, though, like a surveillance team hoping to catch someone in confession”

 

Our Few and Evil Days

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

****

It isn’t remarkable that Mark O’Rowe, a master of sensational monologues, should return to dialogue for his first play since 2007’s Terminus. Nor, for a while, is there much remarkable about that dialogue, beginning with a politely awkward conversation between a middle-aged couple, Ciaran Hinds’s Michael and Sinead Cusack’s Margaret, and the new man seeing their daughter, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s clean-cut Dennis. But the construction of that dialogue is utterly remarkable, so fastidiously naturalistic that every hesitation, overlap, second thought or stumble feels like music in delivery.

How did Dennis fall for their daughter Adele, they ask, blithely leaving aside the fact that she is played by Charlie Murphy. Because she was “more real” than others, he replies. That sounds like a tease. As a playwright, O’Rowe has created mythologies, demons and underworlds. Has he genuinely fallen for realism?

The impression is enforced by Paul Wills’ set, so staggeringly convincing in construction, from its ceiling to functioning kitchen taps, it’s almost surprising he stopped short of a fourth wall. Such over-elaborate detail can be deathly in theatre, subduing the imagination, but, little by little, under Paul Keogan’s gently shifting lights, uncanny elements seep through. Hinds performs the model of salty sociability, but a facial scar intimates a man marked by violence. Vaughan-Lawlor’s stranger oversteps boundaries with a revealing intensity (but the subtlety of his physical performance, slowly twisting inwards, is genius). And Cusack, who sleeps on a sofa bed, as though in penance, gives a deft performance of suffering concealed.

The root of this grief is bound up with violence, honour and a curious sense of love (or its absence) as something like cruel fate: determined by luck, as Dennis puts it and will soon regret, subject to manipulation as Adele discovers, via a brief encounter with her friend’s cruel boyfriend Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), or thickening into an inviolable, seemingly irrational bond between Michael and Margaret. This would be probing enough without sensationalism, but O’Rowe hasn’t sworn off the stuff. He uses blackouts to halt scenes like a brutal censor, creating ever-escalating cliff hangers that hint at an awful secret. Emotions are generally expressed through shouting. You listen to the painstaking dialogue, though, like a surveillance team hoping to catch someone in confession.

When it duly arrives, the whole play folds in on itself, becoming fascinatingly less real, as though recasting this family drama as a purgatory of endless repetition. Its shades of psychological trauma and elevated tragedy might have a keener effect without a late swoop into supernaturalism (Conor McPherson’s Shining City comes to mind) which serves finally to restrict possibilities. O’Rowe has crafted an unnerving, arresting and shape-shifting play, with some terrific performances, but the suggestion that our reality is already stalked by evils beyond our comprehension is already more disturbing and more truthful.

Until Oct 25