Lyric Theatre, Belfast
5th-30th September, 2017
Playwright Conor McPherson made his first foray into television thrillers with BBC Two’s ‘Paula’ earlier this year. Although packed with haunting, eerie imagery, intriguing characters, and a gorgeously off-kilter feel to the whole thing, at the time this reviewer felt that the project ultimately, and frustratingly, failed to come together as a whole, falling short of a sense of dramatic satisfaction, or of things making proper sense in the end. The same idea of not reaching a neat resolution can be said for the conclusion of ‘The Weir’, but, in this case, it absolutely, and brilliantly, works.
First performed in 1997, ‘The Weir’ sees a country pub in the middle of a winter gale invaded by five patrons- the barman, two regulars, one returnee, and a stranger. Publican Brendan and customers Jack and Jim find themselves inevitably gripped by curiosity at the impending arrival of former resident-made-good Finbar, and a young Dublin woman, Valerie, who has just rented an old house in the town. When the pair arrive, stories ensue around the fire as the winter wind howls outside, all with a ghostly or unnerving edge to them. But one story proves to be far more chilling than the rest.
The first thing that must be praised by this reviewer is the set design. It’s magnificent. Designer Owen MacCarthaigh has crafted a pub interior that feels like it could be the local of any drinker around the country. Proudly on display from the moment the audience enters the theatre, well before the lights go down, the detail is exquisite, from the photographs and memorabilia dotted around the walls, to the beer pumps, to the bag of sticks lying beside the fire, ready to fuel it later in the play. Part of this reviewer’s anticipation for ‘The Weir’ was the knowledge that it was being produced by Decadent, having only fond memories of their superb staging work on ‘The Pillowman’ in 2015, and although there are none of the surprises or visual tricks that made that performance such an enthralling night of theatre, the sheer look of the set here is beautiful. Any playwright seeking to have an authentic interior in their work would be lucky to have MacCarthaigh on board. I really can’t say enough good things about it.
It’s just as well, because ‘The Weir’ is, visually, a very static play, with, as already suggested, none of the showy surprises of Decadent’s other work. The only action onstage involves the coming and going of characters into and out of the pub, or to the bathroom, or gently moving about the room as they relay their stories. If this sounds potentially mundane to watch, the sheer quality and power of the writing keeps it from ever becoming an issue. As good as director Andrew Flynn is at keeping just enough movement going as to stop the eye from ever becoming lazy, this is a play that is all about the writing. And what writing.
One of the best sequences in ‘Paula’ (and an example of the frustrating lack of further development rife in many aspects of that series) is a scene where the titular heroine recounts an eerie story to detective/love interest Mac about strange dreams she had when she was younger, of another life away from her real one, where another, much kinder and loving family raised her. When she woke up, she would be utterly convinced that her other life was completely true, and that it had gone on for years, later discovering that sex is something that would bring her back to that surreal state. ‘It gets me into trouble, Mac,’ she freely admits. It’s a haunting, shiver-inducing scene.
Here, the audience gets to enjoy a succession of similarly unearthly stories, but without the same sense of dissatisfaction. Each of the characters, joker Jack, flash Finbar, meek Jim and mysterious Valerie, all relay their strange tales in the presence of their barman-cum-counsellor Brendan, from eerie tales of knocking at the doors of a childhood house said to be situated on the ‘Fairy Road’, to a neighbour’s terror at the apparition of a woman on the stairs, to a deeply unsettling encounter at a graveside. Nothing physically changes about the set during these tales, not even a shift in lighting. All that occurs is the characters sitting or standing, and telling their fables. And yet the audience is completely transported, there at the scene of each of the stories as we listen to them. McPherson’s skillful, immersive writing draws us into these other worlds through a series of incredible monologues, all of which would be worthy of short plays in their own right (another similarity between this and ‘The Pillowman’). Both Jack and Finbar’s tales are ghostly affairs with strong hints of the supernatural, quickly raising the hairs on one’s neck (a level of attention humourously exploited by Jack at one point), and leaving the viewer in a state of unease. Jim’s too is an eerie tale, but one that takes on a more unusual quality than the others, the particular punchline sending a chill down the spine as we realise its implications. You’ll crave the comfort of a warm bath afterwards.
And then we get to Valerie. To anyone still unfamiliar with the play, it would be too much of a spoiler to go into the content of her tale, but within moments, the audience becomes aware that this a very different story to the rest, one that almost makes the ghost stories of the men start to feel silly and indulgent. It’s a complete rug-pull, totally subverting what we think the play is before this point, and draws us into far more poignant, frightening and heartfelt territory. The other characters are left in stunned silence by its conclusion. Audiences will be too.
As good as the writing is, these excellent monologues would only be blueprints without such a high-quality cast to take them on. The five characters complement one another beautifully, Patrick Ryan’s shy Brendan, the most ‘neutral’ of the group, simply listening, rather than contributing to, the stories, is the glue that holds everyone together, a quiet, unassuming, observant presence, endearingly trying to mask his attraction to Valerie early on, and mournfully looking on as he eventually realises her reasons for coming to town. Marty Maguire’s jester Jack puts up a front of composure and joie-de-vivre as the local bachelor, making it all the more rewarding when we finally start to glimpse the insecurity underneath, resulting in one final, quietly heartbreaking story towards play’s end, very different from, and far more human than, the ones that have come before. Garrett Keogh’s brash, confident businessman Finbar presents an air of superiority just about kept in check by an enduring fondness for his old haunt, and the faces that still reside there, clearly in his element showing an attractive young woman around town, but it’s this cocksure behaviour that makes his vulnerability in the midst of his own ghost story all the more affecting. We’re taken back to his time as a young man, scared out of his wits on one dark night of the soul, and it’s a far cry from the older version we’ve been spending time with until now.
Frankie McCafferty brings an appropriate introverted personality to enduring mummy’s boy Jim, the best character to give his particular story to because of that very meekness. McCafferty, during his tale, gives us a sense of Jim’s having been quietly traumatised by the particular phenomena his character may have come face to face with in a graveyard, and this reviewer was almost squirming in his seat as a result. Kerri Quinn’s Valerie, meanwhile, is perhaps the most fascinating of all, Quinn bringing a slightly neurotic quality to her tale, all the more impressive for its having been well-hidden early on, and leaving the audience torn between viewing her as grieving or delusional by the end- most likely both.
This an altogether quieter, subtler affair than Decadent’s previous triumph at the Lyric, but no less powerful for it. Blessed with a small but beautifully balanced ensemble cast, often sublime writing from a master playwright, gorgeous set design, and understated, pitch-perfect direction, ‘The Weir’, through the relaying of a not-entirely-harmonised set of stories by a group of lonely people, captures the simultaneous sense of isolation and community spirit of much of Ireland, and, as an example of the rich literary canon we enjoy here, makes this reviewer proud to come from that country.