“No more stories… Oh go on, just one more,” I heard myself think as I reminisced about being read to before bed when I was a child. I, along with I can only assume the rest of the audience (I was too engrossed to draw my eyes away from the stage and take a look around the theatre), was completely captivated by the spooky tales coming from the mouths of the impeccably cast characters in The Weir.
Conor McPherson’s great play, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1999, is a storytelling masterpiece centred around a series of powerful monologues. Set in a small Irish town, where it seems generations of the same families have lived and worked for decades, and where everyone knows everyone, it’s one of those plays of which you could say that nothing really happens. It takes place over the course of an evening in a cosy, and slightly dysfunctional, pub. The production starts with a local named Jack (Sean Murray) attempting, in the absence of the barman, Brenden (Sean O’Mahony), to pour himself a pint of Guinness only to find that the tap isn’t working properly, and also it later transpires that the women’s toilet is – for some unspecified reason – out of order. These small details of nothing working quite correctly are key to the humour that runs throughout the play. The lack of dramatic events does not, however, make for a slow or boring hour and forty five minutes, and we are given the impression that what does happen on this blustery evening in Ireland will remain of enduring significance to the characters.
Jack and Brenden are soon joined by Jim (John O’Dowd), a likeable albeit slightly odd handyman who lives with his sickly mother, and the conversation quickly turns to another local, Finbar (Louis Dempsey). It emerges that Finbar has moved up the ranks in recent years, thanks to a generous inheritance Jack later teases, and now owns several properties in the area, one of which is being occupied by an attractive young woman from Dublin. The three friends mock and jokingly disapprove of the eager attentiveness that Finbar, a married man, has apparently been bestowing upon his new tenant, yet when he arrives at the pub with her, all four men begin acting like schoolboys when a new girl joins the class – or as Jack eloquently puts it, “like flies around a piece of shite”. While the men taunt each other in a way that only people who’ve known one another for many years can without causing too much offence, there is an undercurrent of tension, largely stemming from Finbar having somewhat left the others behind following his successfulness, which comes to the surface at various points as the evening unfolds.
An old photo on the wall of the pub (along with a steady flow of alcohol) is the initial prompt for the tales of local Irish folklore that dominate the play. One by one, Jack, Finbar and Jim recount events involving ghosts, fairies and generally strange happenings and, while it starts off light-hearted, each one gets increasingly haunting and convincing. The lighting, designed by Lee Curran and Dara Hoban, reflects this progression and the changes in mood, with the stage getting darker with each tale and an icy blue and swampy green glow descending into the pub and infecting its warmth. Director Adele Thomas accentuates the storytelling by positioning each character in the right hand corner at the front of the stage under a spotlight when it is their turn to tell a tale, drawing the audience’s gaze away from the centre to that one person and preventing them from being distracted by anything else.
Despite their efforts to shrug it off as a load of old nonsense, we can see that these goings-on have left a mark of some sort on the three men. Jim’s story, involving death, grave-digging and a “pervert”, is particularly disconcerting, and leads Finbar to declare that enough is enough and there should be no more storytelling. He fears that they have scared Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), his new tenant, who appears, to everyone including the audience, to be a polite and innocent young woman.
From the first time her name is mentioned there is an aura of mystery about Valerie. She has moved alone from the bright lights of Dublin to a village of little significance with no real explanation as to why and we are given few concrete facts. Interestingly, while the men all spoke with an Irish accent, she did not. This established her as an outsider of sorts, setting her aside from the others and highlighting the difference in age, gender and background. Contrary to Finbar’s concerns, the men’s tales have created a safe space for Valerie in which she feels able to share her own story, and consequently shed a little more light on her circumstances. The sounds of the tumultous weather outside, provided by Richard Hammarton, reinforce the feeling of safety inside the pub and its role in sheltering them from the past and the unknown that lies outside.
I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s fair to say that Valerie’s account is by far the saddest, spookiest and most thought-provoking. Madness is a prominent theme in The Weir, and we learn that Valerie has come here partly off her own back, partly on the suggestion of others, to escape and assuage questions regarding her own sanity.
Jack, Brenden, Jim, and Finbar are all visibly taken aback by what she has to say, and unsure how to respond, but their empathy is touching. All of a sudden, there is a whole new dimension to this unassuming woman, and the emotion that Natalie Radmall-Quirke and her experience manage to evoke in those both on and off stage is quite astonishing. The play ends with a final tale from Jack – not of a supernatural nature, but still regarding a haunting of sorts. Whether he is telling it as a show of support and understanding for Valerie, or whether she has made him feel able and compelled to tell it is unclear, but it is nonetheless profound and moving. When the curtain fell, I was left feeling certain that we had witnessed the forging of a set of strong and lasting connections. Despite the ghosts and ghouls, it is a warm and uplifting play, and one that leaves much to be pondered.
The Weir is a co-production between English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester and is touring the UK until 25th November. For more information and tickets see here.