“And the barman asked if I was alright”
It is interesting how the experience of one play can shape attitudes towards a playwright and for me, it was 2011’s The Veil which completely turned me off Conor McPherson to the point where I really wasn’t keen to be seeing any more of his plays. It’s not even as if The Veil was that bad but it was hard work and that thought has lingered strongly, to the point where I really wasn’t too keen on seeing the Donmar’s revival of the The Weir, especially since the venue has been far from a must-see place in recent times. But an irresistible opportunity to see it was dangled in front of me and I took it, and as is so often the case with low expectations, I had an absolutely cracking evening in the theatre.
Josie Rourke’s production is just sensational. Creatively, Tom Scutt’s design is perfectly, realistically detailed right down to the packets of bacon fries on the wall (though I always preferred the scampi ones myself) and Neil Austin’s lighting subtly graduates throughout the show to take us through the light and shade of the changing moods. And the casting is pitch-perfect, bringing together five Irish actors at the top of their game and combining to hauntingly fantastic effect in the rural bar room in which the play is set.
In this pub, the locals gather as they normally do over substantial amounts of booze and blarney but the arrival of a woman, a Dubliner who is renting a nearby cottage, puts them all on edge. Over the course of a night, they each bid to prove themselves by telling the most impressive and unnerving ghost story but they’re not prepared for what they set in train as the tales suddenly become intensely personal. So much of the play really is just people talking, but McPherson’s writing is gorgeously poetic and cleverly constructed to provide insight into the psyches of these people even as they think they are just holding court, and the quality cast tease out the lyrical rhythm and elegiac grace of the prose to make it utterly entrancing.
Dervla Kirwan is beautifully natural as newcomer Valerie, all nervous giggles and keen listener until she ends up in the centre of a devastating revelation; Risteárd Cooper delivers swaggering confidence as successful businessman Finbar and Ardal O’Hanlon’s socially awkward Jim is sensitively portrayed, both of them revelling in the role of raconteur; and Peter McDonald’s barman is achingly marvellous as he maintains a steady presence, holding back from joining in not just with the stories, but from life itself so it seems. And Brian Cox holds the entire theatre in his palm as would-be top dog Jack, both brusquely hilarious and heart-rendingly sad as he lays the realities of his life bare.
So McPherson is rehabilitated in my mind, and with one (more) play comes close to justifying his place as the modern great he is often fêted as. This hauntingly lyrical masterpiece fits in perfectly into the Donmar and though next year’s Oliviers are about a year away, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this getting some mentions on the list of nominees.