The Upside Down
You could be forgiven for thinking the Project Arts Centre is currently experiencing its own version of The Upside Down. Its Cube space, playing host to the excellent Murder of Crows, features three of the countries most exciting up and coming actresses in a taut script by a promising, male playwright. Meanwhile, its Space Upstairs features three of the most respected actresses of their generation in a taut script by one of the countries most respected male playwrights. Yet “The Approach” by Mark O’Rowe, produced by Landmark Productions, is itself its own upside down. One in which one world mirrored inside another can be both instantly recognisable yet utterly transformed. Delivering a daringly pared back production, “The Approach” strives for purity and simplicity in design, performance, and execution. One that sacrifices spectacle for subtlety, and is so much the better for doing so.
A tale of three women spread over a series of confined conversations, ‘The Approach” follows Cora, Anna, and Denise, and their infrequent get togethers for sisterly coffees and catch-ups. Yet they never all meet at the same time. Too much history since their halcyon days as wild, carefree, celibate young girls living in Ranelagh. Today they prefer to meet in pairs. Alternating combinations matching conversational truths to the woman sitting directly across from them. They might momentarily share a spotlight, but each resides in a solitary universe, isolated by lives and pasts that haunt them like ghosts of themselves, compelled by the need to be with, and the need to be apart from each other. Each might talk about how much they feel, yet feelings are always mutable. As are the memories and realities that shape and inform them. Real feelings, real selves, whatever they might be, inhabit the periphery of vision, never overwhelming enough to break the protocols of conversation, even as they shape them. Reformed conversations in which words and worlds flip upside down, their truths lying in the cracks in between, helping to hold the lies together and bring the women ever closer apart.
Using a simple, unvarying format of two characters seated around a table talking, O’Rowe’s thought provoking script deals in a theatrical and dramatic simplicity that serves as a counterpoint to its textual complexity. Structurally taut, “The Approach” leaves little room for maneuver, often feeling like an elaborate exercise, or a crossword puzzle, overlaying layer upon layer to achieve an interlocking whole. Brimming with wonderful observations, its four duologues rarely lag, sustaining attention despite their self-referential circularity. A circularity that often hits the head more than the heart. Yet if ‘The Approach” lacks a significant visceral punch, it still manages to establish enough of an emotional connection to make its three recognisable characters, and their limited landscapes, deeply engaging. Dealing in four conversations, or four variations of the same conversation, truths replicate and transform as characters try to move forward. With their lives steeped in a conversational ordinariness, their worlds, and selves, are not just limited by their language so much as fashioned from it.
With set, script, direction, and performances pared right back, a powerful focus and directness is achieved, with scope and breadth giving way to efforts at greater depth. For “The Approach” often seems less about doing and more about being. Sinead McKenna’s superlative set and lighting design does much to establish, and reinforce, the elements in play. A small oval shaped, wooden island, slightly elevated from the floor, bathed in a moon-cool spotlight, heightens the minimal theatricality, along with “The Approach’s” almost ghostly qualities, reinforcing the cold, immeasurable distance between each relationship, as wide as the universe or a single, round coffee table. If the spotlight’s glare creates a pin point focus on what is seen and heard, a series of dimly lit hanging chairs, suspended mid air in the dark, like a Dali stop-motion photo, resembling the passage of a chair hurled through the air, suggest a disconcerted unconscious beneath the surface. Yet like the motionless chairs, there is no real journey taking place, just snapshots of two women sitting and talking at different times in their lives.
O’Rowe’s superb direction ensures a fixed body language, operating within a limited vocabulary, tells much of what’s not being said. Having characters always sitting with the same inside leg crossed, tilted away from each other, a cold shoulder reinforcing distance, O’Rowe ensures the bulk of the emphasis is placed on the words, whose conversational ease flows brilliantly, even if an occasional rhythmic misstep interrupts the flow. So much so you feel less like a voyeur eavesdropping into a stranger’s conversation, and more like a family member listening in on long unseen relatives with whom a certain familiarity is shared. If his theatrical minimalism might make it tempting to see “The Approach” better suited as a radio play, that would be a serious mistake. No doubt it could translate incredibly well, yet much would get lost in translation. For much of its profound sense of understated, yet palpable power, is derived from three master class performances by Aisling O’Sullivan, Cathy Belton and Derbhle Crotty, whose subtlest shifts in gesture, position, tone, or inflection, convey more in their simplicity than many others achieve with much more to play with. Together their collective presences invest “The Approach” with a deeply expressive, physical immediacy, one which makes the whole immeasurably richer and profoundly engaging.
With its narrow theatrical focus and tightly structured, thought provoking script, in which characters arguably serve the needs of text as much as having the text serve them, “The Approach” might not sit well with those looking for an easy emotional rush. For O’Rowe doesn’t take the audience on a journey so much as get them to stand still to notice the often unseen. Yet if not everyone will marvel at O’Rowe’s running to a standstill approach, marvelously successful though it is on its own terms, even its most ardent critics will have to marvel at its three strong cast and their exquisite ensemble performance, and its stunning sense of design. In “The Approach,” the needle might return to the start of the song, but we don’t sing along like before. Rather we hear, and see, things differently because of it. Subtle, simple, and understatedly powerful, “The Approach” will linger long in the memory, and might well see the ensemble of O’Sullivan, Crotty, and Belton, along with McKenna’s superlative designs, become the stuff of legend.
“The Approach” by Mark O’Rowe, produced by Landmark Productions, runs at The Project Arts Centre until February 24th, transferring then to The Everyman, Cork, from February 27th – March 3rd