Three friends meet around a table to catch up on each other’s lives. They chat, drink tea, leave and reconvene. Despite a minimal plot and dialogue that might appear static on the page, The Approach is a 60-minute jewel of a play. It is transfixing both for its small-talk and for the gaps it leaves in profound matters of truth, betrayal, self-delusion, love and friendship between these women and the unseen men they talk about.
Presented by Landmark Productions in association with St Ann’s Warehouse in New York and Project Arts Centre in Dublin, it was originally staged in 2018. Now it is live-streamed from the stage of Project Arts Centre. Of all the streamed productions I have seen in the past year, this one comes closest to capturing the focus and tension of live theatre. Despite one too-sharp camera manoeuvre, the filming moves smoothly between close-up intimacies and bigger interpersonal intrigue.
Cora (Cathy Belton), Denise (Derbhle Crotty) and Anna (Aisling O’Sullivan) only ever meet in pairs, talking about themselves, each other and the absent third woman, and oscillating between chit-chat (“I love your bracelet”, “Have you lost weight?”) and the meaty stuff of their lives. There is one plotline of estranged sisters, another of betrayal in love, and numerous infatuations and new passions that have withered and died by the next meeting.
Their conversation is filled with enigmas and inconsistencies: they tell the same anecdote about a romantic gesture and repeat each other’s lines in uncanny circularity. Where this shifting ground could lead to frustration for the audience, the dialogue is constructed with such clarity and allure that it holds us, puzzled and enthralled, in its palm. The women’s romantic lives are full of contradictions or changes of mind, and we wonder whether they are deluding themselves or lying to the other. Either way, it is these complexities that render them so convincingly human.
There is pained nostalgia in their ruminations of a happier, more carefree past, and a conversational veneer that occasionally cracks open to reveal the loneliness and fear of mortality beneath.
Written and directed by Mark O’Rowe, who adapted Sally Rooney’s Normal People for television (along with Rooney and Alice Birch), the dialogue is infused with the same captivating quality that makes ordinary, lifelike exchanges so interesting.
There are hints of psychological turmoil beneath what is said. This is reflected in Sinéad McKenna’s set design – a spotlit table in the foreground with upturned chairs dangling ominously in the backdrop – and a suspenseful soundscape by Philip Stewart adds to the edgy atmosphere.
An unnerving quality enters the dialogue towards the end. Reality feels capsized, although nothing has happened outwardly. As the play ends with the promise of another encounter, there is a surreal sense that these women are caught in an endless loop of tea meetings – and the drama leaves us with an irresistible desire to keep on listening in on their lives.