I’d heard that Conor McPherson’s play The Weir was a hidden gem of contemporary theatre, with its many awards (Laurence Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle), but I hadn’t read it. Now, I am glad I hadn’t, because it is one of those plays that really comes into its own on stage. Amanda Gaughan’s perfectly paced production is a real treat for the ear and the eye. Both dynamic and at times reflective, the play’s apparent simplicity hides something much deeper. The set embodies perfectly this duality: a rural, timeless and somehow snug Irish pub designed by Francis O’Connor. Its ingenious walls at first let the audience peer through their transparency, showing the rain pouring down in the background landscape. And as the play starts and the characters appear on stage, we see through walls cleverly turned into opaque and ornate wallpaper, thus delimitating the inside from the outside world, the safe from the unsafe. The dimmed unpretentious lighting by Simon Wilkinson contributes to this warm and primal atmosphere, making the pub a sanctuary in the storm.
As a foreigner, my conception of Ireland is fairly stereotypical despite what my Irish friends have told me. I’ve never set foot in the green country, and I picture it as damp, mystical and particularly friendly. Going to see The Weir was therefore an hour and forty minute trip across the Irish sea for me. The Weir explores all the Irish clichés I knew about: swearing, drinking, mythology, land and unexpectedly, women. The Irishness of the play is by no means an obstacle (except for perhaps the accent to an unaccustomed ear), but instead a window on the richness of this culture. I thoroughly enjoyed the sneak peek and now find myself asking for more. The play intelligently teases us with these pre or mis conceived ideas to address more universal topics such as coping with loss and isolation.
Owned by Brendan (Brian Gleeson), the pub is the only escape for the local folks (and sometimes German tourists). There, old boys Jim (interpreted by Darragh Kelly whose comic timing skills are impeccable), Jack (Gary Lindon as sympathetic as he is antipathetic) and landlord Finbar (Frank McCusker) meet regularly to forget and drink in their loneliness. In this masculine environment where the ladies’ bathroom has been broken for too long, time is only marked by the pouring down of pints and the cheers.
So when Valerie (Lucianne McEvoy), a young Dubliner freshly moved to the country, arrives in the village and pops into the pub, she not only causes a stir but also breaks the fragile balance between the men. McEvoy deserves a special nod for her powerful and subtle performance throughout the play. She never falls into pathos and despite being the only female on stage, she sensibly and wittily evens out the gender ratio. Valerie prefers white wine to beer, listens and observes more than she talks, and when she does, she disconcertingly and refreshingly doesn’t hold her tongue. Far from being passive or objectified, her simple presence forces the men to talk. In a vain attempt to impress and seduce her, they successively narrate tales of ghosts, fairies and the past. The haunting and compelling storytelling of each character reminded me of how important the need to share experiences is for humans, whether this be on a psychiatrist’s sofa, pillow talk or in a pub. This action adds depth and gravity to these lonely figures.
Listening to the stories I was particularly drawn to the importance of women in all of them. In the men’s mouths, they take centre stage as heroines of adulterous, motherhood and lost love tales. The female figure becomes both “natural” and “supernatural”. Valerie, the sole and ultimate representative of her gender on stage, embodies them all as a sort of saint or deity. Billy Roche describes her in the program as a: “Demeter in search of her lost daughter Persephone”. She eventually becomes part of this dysfunctional community after finally telling her heart-wrenching personal story, leaving both audience members and actors speechless in an uncomfortable silence only to be broken by funny man Jim whose joke enables everyone to access catharsis. Sighs of relief and compassion could be heard in the theatre as we sensed that the intrigue neared its end. The physical and emotional tension was such that although comfortably seated in the Lyceum, I might as well have been seated in one of the corners of the pub with Jim, Jack, Brendan, Finbar and Valerie, telling them about my own personal ghosts. This is for me a tell-tale sign of engaging and relevant contemporary theatre.
The play finishes at it starts, the characters leave the pub and their worries behind, their hearts perhaps a little lighter and their souls less empty, the walls thinning out to let the audience see that the storm has passed and the full moon is up.
Both terribly moving and highly diverting, this production of The Weir interpreted by an all Irish stellar cast is absolutely not to be missed. It will grab your attention, get into your guts and leave your mouth dry, desperate for a Guiness and for some good company.
The Weir is on at the Lyceum Theatre until 6th February.