A more mature Mark O’Rowe says his new play has eased off on the visceral approach that marked his earlier work, writes Liam Heylin.
Fans of the visceral and highly charged work of playwright Mark O’Rowe might find something more reflective in his new play, The Approach.
“When you are younger you are in to the spectacle, the virtuosity.
Getting older it becomes less interesting for you to watch (that kind of stuff) as well,” says O’Rowe.
“You want to be dealing with subjects important to you — communication and stuff like that, where we stand morally, what it is to be empathetic, ‘I want to give but I am afraid to give’.
“The play deals with those questions on an intuitive level. They want to give to each other. It is the territory they are navigating.”
Aisling O’Sullivan, the Tralee-born actress who is one of the three stars of The Approach explains who ‘they’ are: “Two sisters and one friend — they have known each other since college days — the play occurs over about five years.
"In the play there are three conversations. Mark’s impulse is to work in a spirit of enquiry and try to understand.”
The three women meet and have conversations.
Through the conversations we learn a lot about the women and a lot about life. It sort of examines how we communicate verbally and non-verbally.
“It is mysterious. We (O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty and Cathy Belton) are trying to find ways in rehearsal to support that mystery. That is the heart of the play.
"It is beautiful and profound. We are trying to find ways to release those things,” O’Sullivan says.
While O’Rowe speaks directly in interview this is an inclination he curbs when dealing with issues in his dramatic writing.
In other words he doesn’t want to hit the point square on the nose and leave the audience simply sitting there on the receiving end of a message.
“Giving too little information frustrates an audience but I am not crazy about ‘on the nose’. If you get them to reach towards it.
"When you write half of it the audience get the other half. The more I am writing the more I am trying to make that happen.
“You write a play, intuiting your way through it and it happens slightly musically because it is only words on a page.
"You only get a certain amount from reading it. But then the way the actor can inhabit it. I can hear she is not feeling what I thought she was feeling.
"It leads to a domino effect — everything begins to change slightly now. You have to leave the writer at home,” the playwright says.
He knows that he could come into rehearsal with tons of notes making declarations of how it should be. He is the writer, after all. But that is not how he approaches direction of his own work.
“You cannot be too prescriptive with the actors. You guide and cajole, you suggest, you give permission. If they find it they feel they have earned it and then they own it.
“From play to play it is always a different starting point. In this play before I wrote it I wanted to work with those three actors. I pictured the three of them. I kind of knew what they would be.
“But you always have the possibility that it might not happen the way you see it in your head. It is only the start, it is the impulse. I will write a play out of that.
Citing Daniel Day Lewis being quizzed about his exhaustive method of researching characters and whether it is necessary and so forth, the actor’s answer echoes with O’Rowe — “It is enough that I believe it.”
“You need something like that. It is enough to push you do it. There is always a doubt. But you have to believe it is going to happen.”
He says that some writers who direct their own work cannot take off the hat of writer.
“Rehearsal should always be an exploration, an allowing and cajoling. They have to search. They have to search together within the room.
“The nature of the play is three conversations, two people in each conversation. It is very in the moment. It doesn’t have that much plot, it is more about behaviour,” he says.
It sounds like the play is going to require an audience being attentive to all of the verbal and non-verbal tics going on.
Far from that asking too much of the audience the writer feels it is asking them only to do the very thing we are coming to the theatre for — to be constantly actively engaged.
As well as offering a fresh challenge to the audience it is offering something new to O’Sullivan as an actor at a time when gender-related debate is to the fore in the arts.
It is the first time she can ever recall working in an all-female cast.
“I think it is very energising. I find it very appropriate that the arts should be a place where this is worked out. It is a visible place where choices matter.
"It is very exciting at this time that the arts can be an area where humanity can be examined. We should be holding up a mirror and provoking and discussing, showing the best and worst of ourselves.”
As for the gender debate in the background in Irish theatre, O’Sullivan says of this play, “It is a different moral debate (in the play). It is outside of that. It is more universal, more primal.”
O’Rowe was obviously more than aware of the momentum out of #wakingthefeminists and #metoo as he embarked on a play comprised of three women.
But whatever of the surrounding circumstances in which a piece of work is being performed the play has to drive on, in a sense regardless.
“If I start qualifying or changing anything because of something outside of the piece of art I have already compromised.
“Every time I write a play I wish it will work, that it will be anything other than shit, or 90% work and that the 10% that doesn’t work is concealed in it and makes it awful.
"I cannot think any further than that. I cannot think of the effect on society. The best you can hope for is that it will be a work of art worth looking at.”
After he’s done with The Approach, much of the focus for O’Rowe will switch to his film-directing debut, The Delinquent Season.
Due for its Irish premiere at the upcoming Audi Dublin Film Festival, the movie features Cillian Murphy, also the star of two films written by O’Rowe: Intermission and Perrier’s Bounty. The evolution continues.
Landmark Productions present the world premiere of The Approach from 1 - 24 February at the Project Arts Centre Dublin and from 27 February - 3 March 2018 at The Everyman Cork.