It is more than 20 years since Mark O'Rowe's debut play, Anna's Ankle, was produced in the dark dingy space of Project @ the Mint. A short drama set behind the scenes of a snuff film, it shocked and excited a new, young audience, who were drawn to the unusual contemporary subject matter. Over the next decade, O'Rowe went on to push the boundaries of theatrical taste and the dramatic imagination in, among other works, a trio of poetic monologues of the Dublin underworld: Howie the Rookie, Crestfall and Terminus.
O'Rowe's most recent work, however, has abandoned the aggressive skullduggery of his Shakespearean fantasies for the heightened emotional landscape of domestic naturalism. These days, you would be more likely to find one of his aspirational thugs taking a seat at a dinner party than organising a drug deal. Our Few and Evil Days, which premiered on the main stage of the Abbey Theatre in 2014, gave shape to the grief and tedium of middle-aged marriage, while his forthcoming film, The Delinquent Season, charts the conflict in the relationships of two suburban couples.
If O’Rowe’s early work seemed to map an arrested transition between adolescence and adulthood, you might argue that the writer has settled into maturity.
The Approach, which premieres at the Project Arts Centre next month under the direction of O'Rowe, certainly confirms this kind of reading. It offers a restrained study of the interior life of three women in their 40s, and the deepening of their relationship through periods of conflict and resolution, and phases of love and loss. It is staged as a series of conversations but if, as O' Rowe explains one morning before the day's rehearsals begin, "the story really happens between the scenes", their interactions and silences, revelations and reticence offer a deeper portrait of each of their lives.
Seeds of play
The seeds of the play were first sown by O'Rowe's desire to work with the three actresses who star in the play: Cathy Belton, Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O'Sullivan. "I had worked with Derbhle and Aisling before, I knew Cathy, and I just thought, 'I've never seen them in a play together.' Really. That was the beginning of it. A play can come to you sometimes as a line of dialogue or an ending to a story, and from that, once you have a hook, there are thousands of other decisions you make that give you a play. For this, the starting point was a picture of these three actors in my head. It was really that banal."
Indeed, the lives exposed in The Approach might almost be described as banal: these are ordinary women living ordinary lives that ebb and flow with minor triumphs and tragedies. O'Rowe confesses he wasn't quite sure where the play was going until the first draft was completed. "When you are in front of the page it's just words, sounds, impressions, feelings. But I knew I wanted to articulate these three discrete lives." The start of the rehearsal period brought new insights too. "Look, you never really know what a play is, whether it works, until the actors are there, bringing it to life on the stage."
O'Rowe loves the rehearsal period for a new play; the graft and rediscovery of his own work. It was why he started directing his own plays, beginning with Terminus in 2007.
“The actors really lead the whole process,” he says humbly when asked about his directorial approach. “They are the directors, really. They are the storytellers. They are the ones who give it to an audience every night.”
Watching actors inhabit his characters, he continues, “you stop being sensitive to what you wrote. You remember that making theatre is less about precision than bringing something to life. And when you see actors doing that, well, it’s like the feeling you had when you wrote that piece. Because it’s not about words or the moment on the page. It’s what you intuit, in the moment, and that’s the same as what an actor does as they figure out the play.”
Women offer a different way of looking at the world, of being in the world
O’Rowe loves to be in the room watching this transference of creative energy and responsibility. “It is a mental slog,” he concedes, “but rehearsals are basically the most fun you can have while working really, really hard.”
‘The bloody lines’
As if on cue, the actors appear, ready for the day’s rehearsal. Belton is the first to arrive, a discreet and tidy presence, arranging her belongings in the corner. Then O’Sullivan comes in, a commanding figure, tall and pale as a marble statue. Crotty is the last of the trio to convene, wearing enormous earphones. She has been listening back to the previous day’s rehearsal, recorded to help her learn her lines.
Although the three actors have previously played kings and saints, learned long monologues and tricky musical numbers, they all agree that O’Rowe’s play has proved extremely challenging on one fundamental level: as Crotty says with exasperation, “learning the bloody lines!”
In The Approach, O'Rowe has pared back the poetic fireworks of his previous work to a skeletal syntax. "It's so real, so bitty," Crotty explains. "And all the dialogue is shared, so you are constantly dependent on the person you are playing against. The conversation is always changing tack, and there are silences, and you are always leaving something hanging. It's always . . . what's that word, that word . . . oh yes, vague . . ." The language is so naturalistic, O'Sullivan says, that "it is almost casual. But it is hugely skilful artifice. It has to be, to create the effect of spontaneity, because it's not about what's being said but what's behind it."
Despite the challenge, the trio were delighted to read the play for the first time, not just because it was written specifically for them, but because it is unusual to find good parts for “women of a certain age – oh God, we are women of a certain age”, Crotty jokes with mock-despair. “We are obviously not the girlfriends or ingenues anymore,” Belton says, “but we don’t have to be the mammies either.”
O'Rowe's play was written before the Waking the Feminists movement kicked off in 2016 – "Incredibly, our first workshop took place in the Abbey on the day the Waking the Nation programme was launched," Crotty says – but the actresses have all noticed a shift in the sense of possibility for women working in theatre since. "There's this great sense of potential," says O'Sullivan says. "Women offer a different way of looking at the world, of being in the world." Plays like The Approach "help to bring a more rounded truth to life".
What that truth is is still being negotiated as they learn lines and put physical shape on the script. “We can sit around talking about back story and objectives all day, but the play is constantly shifting from one day to the next,” O’Rowe admits. “It’s a slippery thing, this kind of storytelling.”
“Ah yes,” Crotty interjects. “But that’s theatre at its best.”
Landmark Productions presents the world premiere of The Approach at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, February 1st-24th; and at the Everyman, Cork, February 27th-March 3rd.