Richmond Theatre, 2nd March 2018
I am jealous of anyone who has never seen Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir. They have something special to look forward to. I last saw it at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh at the beginning of 2016 in a fine production directed by Amanda Gaughan with a wonderful cast of Brian Gleeson, Frank McCusker, Lucianne McEvoy, Gary Lydon and Darragh Kelly. You might think that, given its structure, a series of memorable disclosures over one evening in a pub in Ireland, this was a play which might not warrant repeated viewing. You’d be wrong. I haven’t yet seen any of Conor McPherson’s other plays, bar one, which I hope to correct, but I can guess why this remains the favourite and most oft-performed.
Now Mr McPherson is currently packing them in, and getting award nominations, with Girl From the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre having transferred from the Old Vic. (Girl From the North Country review ****). He is fortunate in his choice of musical collaborator, a certain Mr B Dylan, and his cast, notably Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds and Arinze Kene, but these are his stories, his words and his direction.
For telling stories is what he is good at. Mind you he is in pretty good company. What is it that makes Ireland, per capita, the most talented country in the world when in comes to the dramatic word. This is a wild, unproven assertion, but you take my point. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Synge, Shaw, Wilde, Boucicault, Yeats (he founded the Abbey), Beckett, Behan, Friel, O’Casey, Walsh, Carr, McDonagh (alright he’s not really Irish). And that’s just the ones whose work I have seen. There are tons more.
Maybe it’s the education system, (which champions the word over other art forms), the civil structure, the pub culture, the craic. (I really do not mean to offend with gratuitous paddywhackery here). Maybe its the Catholic Church which tells a lot of lurid stories. Maybe its the long, and deeply held, oral tradition. Maybe it simply reflects past success. Irish writing outside the dramatic form also excels in the short story and the episodic. Maybe its the breadth of the diaspora. If you go round the world you have a lot of stories to tell. But none of this is particular or peculiar to Ireland and, anyway, such generalisations are surely slightly patronising.
Whatever the reason we should all be grateful and The Weir reminds us why. It’s a cold, windy night. Garage owner Jack, (veteran Sean Murray who I think has the juiciest part), comes in to the village pub, (perfectly realised in Madeleine Girling’s set), and pours himself a drink. From a bottle after tetchily discovering the Guinness tap is off. Eventually Brendan, (here charmingly played by Sam O’Mahony), comes from the house behind and officially opens his bar. They chat about their day. They are joined by mild odd-job man Jim (John O’Dowd) and they discuss the arrival of Valerie in the village. Finally local boy made good businessman Finbar (Louis Dempsey) arrives with Valerie herself (Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who is the only member of the cast I had seen before, in Cheek By Jowl Winter’s Tale). Valerie is renting a house and Finbar is showing her around, as she moves from Dublin. Jack and Finbar start verbally sparring with each other, Jack plainly jealous of Finbar’s success and Finbar overly cocky. This is in part a display to impress Valerie. We know these people even before the four mysterious supernatural stories emerge in succession. After the stories, we know them even better.
I’ll stop there in case you haven’t seen the play. Suffice to say all human, and beyond, life is there in the words of the five characters over 100 minutes or so. It is rooted in rural, Irish life, and there is no action to speak of, but at this performance, like I suspect all other performances, the audience is transfixed, so clearly Mr McPherson has tapped into universal truths. Myth is a powerful force in Ireland, and Mr McPherson is not the first of his countrymen to incorporate it into his plays, with Brian Friel an arch exponent for example. Others have also borrowed from the tradition: most recently Jez Butterworth in The Ferryman. Yet The Weir has a kind of special power because the stories are simultaneously extraordinary and day-to-day.
Moreover it isn’t just the monologues that suck you in. The dialogue is also compelling. These are lives lived, funny, sad, tender, sometimes desperate, filled with memory. Drink is an equivocal lubricant, opening the characters up and exaggerating emotions. I haven’t had a drink in years (don’t ask) but The Weir reminds me what I am missing. For despite the intimation of lives that have been blighted by sorrow or frustration these people seem to have had an enjoyable, fruitful evening in each other’s company. Think about it. One way or another your best memories will probably involve having a laugh or a heart to heart with friends. That’s life.
A superb play very well realised by the cast and director Adele Thomas. There were one or two moments where the transitions where a little ticklish, and the fading of the lights into the stories was a bit obvious, but it doesn’t really matter. When a play is this good, and the cast this attuned, then it can only be a success. This English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester co-production is nearly done I am afraid, just a couple more nights in Cambridge, but I see ETT’s next production is A Streetcar Named Desire. If it is coming anywhere near you I would seek it out based on the handful of ETT productions I have seen to date.