The Approach review: An intricate puzzle of a play

Mark O’Rowe’s new drama finds that people are the hardest things to solve

Cathy Belton and Aisling O’Sullivan. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

Cathy Belton and Aisling O’Sullivan. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

 

People are puzzling in Mark O’Rowe’s new play for Landmark Productions, a conversation piece that begins, appropriately, with a subtle linguistic trick.

“I love your bracelet, actually,” one woman tells another, sitting in mirror image of each other on either side of a round table. “Actually”? Have we joined their conversation late or has she privately changed her mind?

The conversation continues in this style, as with O’Rowe’s last play, Our Few and Evil Days; so full of the minute detail, shifting rhythms and cross-currents of thought, you could call it neuro-naturalism. This is how people speak, actually, and in an O’Rowe play, you comb it for clues.

The women are Cora (Cathy Belton) and Anna (Aisling O’Sullivan), two friends catching up after a long interlude over exchanges that seem at once believably banal and freighted with significance; as Cora might put it, “a deep chat”. They move from elliptical recollections of a tragically deceased friend to a discussion of their diets, before the sharp discrepancies in their love lives dislodges something more.

Cora has suffered something “horrendous”, while Anna is in the full throes of romance with a man who lovingly constructs crosswords for her, each clue leading to an intimate secret. That is also the approach of the play, told, like Arthur Shnitzler’s La Ronde, in successive dialogues between rotating partners, a cryptic work about memory and connection.

It may not pass the Bechdel test, but the men mentioned throughout the play are almost comically insignificant. “Who cares if he f***ing died?” rages O’Sullivan’s Anna about an ex-lover, more jilted by the female betrayal of Derbhle Crotty’s phlegmatic Denise, with whom he took up. Denise, now settled with a child and someone else, is blasé about the guy, but wounded by Anna’s estrangement. It takes a crisis, she tells Cora nonchalantly, “for people to really evaluate how they feel about each other”. The darker suspicion of the play, in which the reconnections are precipitated by tragedy, is that it may also take a sacrifice.

What’s missing, however, is any stable sense of character to lose: Belton, O’Sullivan and Crotty, three of the finest performers of their generation, are made almost interchangeable here, partly through their mirrored physicality under O’Rowe’s fastidious direction, and partly because the details in their stories begin to warp and migrate: we hear that crossword anecdote more than once, and never the same way.

That inconsistency is deliberate, of course, unsettling reality just as slyly as Sinéad McKenna’s stark set, a rigid circle beneath an overhanging explosion of chairs. But a subtler picture of impermanence is built up in a rootless sense of modern Dublin, mapped out, believably, in new shopping centres, jewellery stores, refitted kitchens and book clubs, where relationships and passions wane in places bleached of history.

An intricate puzzle in the form of a play, The Approach holds your attention like a transfixing riddle, rationing out clues and folding in on itself artfully over the course of a swift, dense 75 minutes. Whether you think that attention has been repaid depends on your satisfaction with its haunted connections and lingering ambiguities. But such are the mysteries within people too, who, O’Rowe and his excellent cast know, are never easily solved.

Until Feb 24, then The Everyman, Cork, Feb 27-Mar 3