Connor McPherson’s The Weir was first performed before audiences in the Royal Court in 1997 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1999. It is an exquisite piece of writing, and this production by the English Touring Theatre, twenty years on, lovingly packages it into a total theatrical treat.
The setting is a rural Irish pub. We meet the bar owner (Brendan) and two of his regulars (Jack and James) who are clearly used to whiling away evenings together with inconsequential banter over several pints and shots. On this particular evening, however, there is a hot topic: a mysterious woman has arrived from Dublin and is renting out a local property. In this isolated community, where everyone knows everyone else, this is definitely News. It seems also that an acquaintance – Finbar – has taken it upon himself to play the gracious host to their visitor and is showing her around the area. What is immediately clear is that this is a source of some irritation and we learn that, while Finbar shares the men’s background, he has abandoned their community and found marriage and money in a nearby town. The play centres on Finbar’s arrival in the pub, accompanied by the newcomer, Valerie.
As the evening develops, the men begin to tell stories, each of which draws on some suggestion of the supernatural. These start in a jovial fashion, but as new stories emerge, more intimate feelings and fears and resentments are revealed, and the strain between the three men and Finbar is exposed. Meanwhile, Valerie seems to pay an unnatural level of attention to what is being said and eventually tells a tragic story of her own which again causes a dramatic shift in the dynamic between the men.
There is a rich texture to everything about this production. The meticulous detail and warmth of the pub set (by designer Madeleine Girling) enhance our sense of this insular, cosy, familiar social world. Lee Curran’s lighting design uses subtle changes of colour, intensity and focus to create and reinforce the constantly shifting moods of the piece. And the costumes speak volumes; Finbar’s dapper cream suit and crisp white shirt contrast pointedly with Jack’s fading grey attire, while gentle James shambles around in a comfy, blue, over-stretched woollen cardigan.
But it is the richness of the characters – their relationships and their stories – that is the striking achievement of this play. Jack, Brendan and James are single men living out deeply lonely lives. And yet they have a profound mutual understanding which is rooted in a shared history dating back over generations. This is conveyed in gloriously subtle moments. In the very first scene, Jack arrives at the empty pub, walks straight around behind the bar and, after establishing that the draught beer doesn’t seem to be working, opens a bottle, pours himself a drink and puts some cash in the till. He doesn’t even bother turning the lights on. At this point we assume that he owns or manages the place – until the actual owner (Brendan) comes in. Brendan registers no surprise at the other man’s presence in the gloom, and the fact that Jack has served himself is not remarked upon. By the time the two men exchange their first words we already ‘get’ the history between them – the familiarity, the trust, the intimacy.
There are many such moments throughout the play. In my favourite one, Jack forgets a detail in the story he is recounting. Without missing a beat, James supplies the forgotten word, and, as Jack resumes and completes the sentence, James silently and un-self-consciously makes the accompanying hand gestures as though he were the story-teller. It is a fleeting, subtle but powerful display of a deep, almost visceral connection between the two men.
The Weir is famous for its celebration of the Irish art and tradition of folklore and story-telling through which men are able to communicate both with other men and with women at a level that would be beyond the reach of ordinary conversation. But what will stay with me is the authenticity of the characters and the tender and poignant portrayal of their relationships. It is a beautiful production in which every element seems to come together in perfect harmony. A treat indeed.