What happens when a cry for help goes unheard? This question is at the heart of Mark O’Rowe’s elaborate new drama, which begins with two friends catching up over coffee. In between discussions about a new bracelet and weight loss, they recall a school peer who ran away, found days later in the mountains.
“If you want my help then give me some indication,” says Cora (Cathy Belton), who did her best to engage. Fascinatingly, the painstaking dialogue, resembling the judders of real conversation (“I mean, don’t you …?” “No, you do.”), sends you reading between the lines. It’s sad to think that signs of distress could be unsent, but it’s disturbing to imagine others choosing to ignore them.
This absorbing play for Landmark Productions, written for its cast and directed by its author, is not unlike O’Rowe’s last original drama Our Few and Evil Days. That was buttressed by a fastidiously naturalistic set but here we have an abstract scene – a purgatorial café surreally imagined by designer Sinéad McKenna. Where the instability of a psychological thriller was once a revelation, now its part of the wrapping.
That may threaten to give the game away too soon. At first, there’s little eventful about the reunions between Cora and her old friends – sisters Anna and Denise (the artfully restrained Aisling O’Sullivan and Derbhle Crotty), still warring over an ex-boyfriend. Constantly assured in her details, how much are we to believe of Anna’s reinvention after the death of old lover Oliver? Or eloquent Denise, who says she never loved Oliver and later insists she did? Most believable is Cora, social but lonely in Belton’s poignant performance, and still nostalgically affectionate for the days they all lived together.
As the plot moves towards the sisters’ reconciliation, you can’t help but feel distrustful. “You still have a bit of majesty to you,” Anna complements Denise, quite prosaically. Their rift has healed, but when there’s mention of Cora, both break down in tears.
There’s danger of making an enigmatic play too transparent. Though signs of tragedy are obvious, the script sends us back to rediscover them, while the chairs suspended high above McKenna’s set ominously trace the contours of a mountain. It’s admirable of O’Rowe to show human loneliness and the difficulty of reaching out. Yet, it’s unnerving and less sensational to consider the possibility of resistance to those cries for help, rather than the certainty they’re being flagrantly ignored.
The Approach is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until February 24th. For more details, click here.