The artful surface of Mark O'Rowe's play leaves us suspecting throughout. Things are not what they seem.
Abbey Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Oct 3-Oct 25
My review of Our Few and Evil Days by Mark O'Rowe coming up just as soon as I say hello in Brown Thomas ...
Before the lights start to unceremoniously pop into darkness in Mark O'Rowe's staging of his new play, there is a sense that things are not what they seem. Its ordinariness is as painful as, say, a visit to your partner's parents, which the well-mannered Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) has tasked himself to do, entering his girlfriend Adele's tidy and furnished family home. However, when you look at the most normal object with the scrutiny that Paul Wills's set design exhorts - encasing the detailed living room/kitchen with a tactility that'll you'll examine it like a model box - you'll eventually find something hidden below the surface.
The dinner table conversation is led by Adele (Charlie Murphy) and the topic of her friend's troubled romance, while her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and father (Ciarán Hinds) follow-up with questions. Meanwhile Dennis is incredibly polite, even if discourteously positioned with his back facing the audience. With O'Rowe's dialogue fleecing the scene with typicalities and locality, the play is scrubbing itself with something stronger than realism; this is a reality-eminent piece of naturalism.
When a line is finally crossed, you'd believe a character's shock when they say "This is crazy". What transpires is a astonishing interaction that weighs contradicting views of love and healing. Like the one-two delivery of Howie The Rookie, the playwright doesn't settle for a singular perception, even employing a brief stint from Ian Lloyd Anderson to solidly argue against one of the play's popular opinions. What's psychologically disturbing is how O'Rowe places these contradictions within a binary of abuser and victim. "Exactly. I was a child" says Adele readily one point, welcoming her vulnerability within a crisis. Continuously dealt with moral questions surrounding unrequited love, you'd think we've been landed in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where "The course of turn love never did run smooth".
You'd welcome anything on the Abbey stage that well represents contemporary life, and it's hard not to think of O'Rowe as a vanguard for Dublin realism in dramatic theatre. Not dissimilar to Enda Walsh's Ballyturk, there is a wonkiness to its structure; by the end of the first act you'd mistake Vaughan-Lawlor and Cusack as the duo at the centre of the play, while Murphy's role is hardly fleshed out. As both writers flourish as directors of their work, you'd suspect they're reserving themselves beyond wider dramaturgical conference.
You'd forgive it in the face of O'Rowe's bigger achievement here, to suspend us within a form of naturalism that essentially self-corrupts, sewn tightly by his cast's lightning-speed deliveries. Of special note are Hinds and Cusack, benignly dry to the salt of the Earth, taking the enormity of a trauma without departing into melodrama.
With clever subversions of the morality play and the Shakespearean comedy, Our Few and Evil Days is as interested in surface as it is in substance. It also furthers O'Rowe as a dramatist vested in the dialectic, of contradicting values competing for resolution. There are at least two sides to everything, and the affect of its disturbing coda is to leave us questioning the version of events presented that feels suspiciously singular. It leads to an unsettling prospect - the realisation of evil in the most ordinary of realms.
What did everybody else think?