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The Passing at the Abbey Theatre (Review)

The Passing is one of the new plays from Paul Mercier playing at the Abbey, alternating with Mercier’s other new work, East Pier. The Passing is essentially a story about how disconnected we’ve grown as a nation, out of touch with one another, and our roots. It’s the type of reflection that one sees frequently these days, so it seems reasonable to expect any material covering the theme to try to approach it in a novel or an interesting way. Instead, The Passing is just about passable as an exploration of social isolation in 21st century Ireland.

Pass on this one?

The production design on the play is fantastic, particularly the house which serves as the location of the play. The audience is treated to a cross-section of the house in the middle of suburbia, one going on sale after the passing of the two owners. In true Irish style, there’s something of a squabble over what to do with the property by the children of the departed inhabitants – with some opting to sell, some wanting to hold on to the house for a sense of continuity, and some uncertain.

The house looks genuinely remarkable. It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever seen at the Abbey. Kevin McFadden deserves great praise for constructing a set which doesn’t just look like a conventional house, it seems more like a vaguely defined construct – bits are missing and frames are exposed, but it’s still complex enough to believe that – even if the main characters aren’t able to fully conceptualize it – there was somebody living there once.

Window of opportunity?

The sound of suburbia is captured quite well, as is the lighting. There’s a wonderful sense of time passing created simply by fading the light through the window, and some nice work as passing cars push gusts of air through the window. On a purely technical front, the play is wonderful – it’s a very well constructed little play.

However, the play needs to fill those sets and the moments between the lighting changes. It needs stuff to happen and characters for us to be interested in. Unsurprisingly, given the basic themes of the work, the play is about a bunch of characters who pass through the old house the evening before it goes on-sale. Some of these are interesting, some of these are cliché, some are just boring. Some are played by strong actors, some are played by reasonable actors. Each person arrives, reflects on the state of their lives and leaves.

The play is populated with the ide of motion. We have a neighbour who is flying back to England this evening. We have a young girl who is goaded by her swimming instructor about arriving on time. We have a failed musician who serves simply to move things around for other people. We have a young woman who has had a constant stream of young boyfriends who pass through the lives of the family – one after the other. Each is present for an important event in the life of the family, but none really stuck around. So there’s the irony of photos populated with people they never see and situations created by those who have long departed.

Passing in the night?

In fairness, it’s not a bad idea – and some of the stuff is handled well. The problem is the anchor. The play choses to anchor itself in the character of Catherine, played by Catherine Walsh. Now, I don’t like to be harsh, but I am honestly not sure if I had a problem with the character or the actor. Catherine is, quite simply, an annoying character. The audience knows from the outset that she’s living in her own wonderland and that this won’t end how she imagines that it will. But the play can’t make us like her enough to want it to end that way.

And she’s not unlikable either. She’s just boring. She’s a cliché of an artsy type who refuses to be grounded, whingeing and whining endlessly about stuff. The play at least has the other characters moving around with some sort of purpose, but Catherine is just dull. She’s full of grand ideas which we know she isn’t going to do anything about. Her god-daughter and niece, Rachel, rues spending time with Catherine, and we understand and fully appreciate. The child got off relatively easily – she was only on stage for a few minutes, while we sat through an hour. By the way, young actress Roxanna Nic Liam was one of the better performers in the play.

All of these traits, from the failure to the self-delusion, might seem tragic if we could be given a reason to care about Catherine – either by the play itself or by the performer. She just comes across as an over-stated drama queen, who was undoubtedly always convinced that everything is (and always has been) about her. It’s not interesting – it’s just dull and boring.

No need to cushion the blow...

There’s a moment in The Passing which really struck me. It was one of those bits that really kinda hit me in the stomach and had me muttering “now wait a second…” to myself. Two characters are standing in an empty house, observing that – in this particular house – the wall between the sitting and the dining room has been knocked down. This interior design decision stands in contrast to every other built-from-the-same-plans home in this large and sprawling estate.

One of the two conversing characters (the one who actually lives in the estate) goes on to wax lyrical at length about how modern Ireland is disconnected and people who live “a few feet apart” might as well be on different planets. What does he suggest as a cause (or perhaps a symptom, it’s not clear) of all this? The remodelling work that people do on their out-of-the-box estate houses. He explicitly mentions the extension that used to exist out the back of the house, and one can only assume he’s also talking about a tree house that the deceased owner built from his grandchild.

This bit threw me for a loop. In the suburban sprawl, where individual identity is easily lost amid mazes of houses that look identical, any attempt to distinguish and leave your own mark on a particular property is a sign of how detached we are? One might assume that the inverse is true, that we might all be better connected and able to relate to one another if we somehow lived in anonymous houses that look exactly alike. It’s a strange suggestion for the play to just throw out there – it’s so at odds with the conventional thinking on estates and suburban living that it really needs to be properly articulated if it’s going to be used. Instead, it seems to exist purely to sound sophisticated.

No passion for The Passing...

That’s the problem with the play. It has a fairly decent central theme, but it’s never quite sure on how to handle it. As the cast waltz through (or “pass” through – see what I did there? the play is about as subtle), we never really get a sense of any. They end up as fleeting glimpses of characters rather than fully-formed individuals. The play may rue the way that we have grown so disconnected, but it never gives me a reason to care that I don’t connect with the cast. I can understand why the people in the play have disconnected from one another – and it has nothing to do with any nonsense like societal causes or individualism. It’s just the fact that they’re ridiculously boring people.

They couldn’t connect to one another over their entire lives. What chance did I have in an hour?

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