by Conor McPherson
Gate Theatre, Dublin
Directed by Garry Hynes
Featuring: Seán McGinley (Jack), David Ganly (Brendan), Mark Lambert (Jim), Denis Conway (Finbar), Genevieve O’Reilly (Valerie)
12 June - 16 August 2008
The Weir marked playwright Conor McPherson’s true step up in the ranks of Irish theatre when first produced in 1997. Part of the reason was the exotic effect of its arrival first on the British stage before coming home to Ireland, thereby bearing the stamp of approval of the cultural and imperial centre before returning to the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. The same year McPherson’s script for the comedy gangster film I Went Down propelled him to international stardom, winning an award at San Sebastián and snaps at Sundance the following year. As a theatrical and literary voice in postmodern Ireland, McPherson had arrived.
Ten years on, The Weir returns to the Irish stage under the direction of Garry Hynes, the director with the most distinctive voice in Irish theatre, best known for her work with the Druid Theatre, Galway, but also on Broadway, where, again ten years ago, she picked up a historic Tony for best director. As such The Gate’s new production of The Weir has all the hype and prestige of a classic. Its presentation as the summer blockbuster at the theatre adds to the impression of a surefire hit working within a comfort zone.
This is not an altogether apropos situation for McPherson’s work. The ragged edges of his oeuvre were arguably more exciting in the protean form they were in ten years ago, when his was an emerging rather than established voice. The uneasy blend of monologue and character drama presented in The Weir feels more like the kind of thing that would be at home on a more modest stage, and Hynes’ characteristic directorial idiom seems an irrelevant overlay rather than integral to what’s happening here.
The setting is a small rural Irish pub where a barman chats with two of his regular customers prior to the arrival of a former rural denizen turned townie businessman and his latest real estate client, a woman. The psychodynamics of gender, rural isolation, and economic conflict all rear their head in expected ways as the play progresses, but its real heart is in the four ghost stories that are told in the course of the evening. Inevitably in rural Ireland, talk turns to death, and by circumlocution through myths of fairy folk and phantom apparitions of the recently dead, the tales of the macabre drift towards one of genuine tragedy as Valerie (Genevieve O’Reilly) speaks of the recent death of her child and an unearthly experience thereafter which may have been supernatural or merely a symptom of trauma.
In the oscillation between almost literal fireside yarn and heartfelt drama, McPherson ploughs the furrow of the roots of the relationship between the material and the spiritual world, not just in terms of ghosts and myths, but of the human soul and the life lived in a body. On one level, these sad, desperate lonely rural men have personal histories involving living with mothers, failed romances, and other dilemmas common and grounded, and McPherson’s answer to the question of who they really are inside is answered not in the routine physical details (which are emphasised) of drinking, smoking, paying for drinks (or not), and ordinary interaction, but also the stories they tell of their encounters with things beyond them (including jokey but significant references to the coming seasonal arrival of tourists who, also phantomlike, pass through their world). Contrasting these with the decidedly female and more directly dramatic clincher of Valerie’s story merely cements the sense of dramatic trope, or, dare we say, ‘the moral of the story’ that underlies the set pieces that are the ghost stories themselves.
The play is well performed for the most part, although some of Seán McGinley’s choices of cadence and rhythm in the delivery of his lines (most of which are self-consciously elliptical and colloquial) are peculiar rather than interesting. Denis Conway possibly fares best as the blustering rural escapee come back to his old haunt (yes, the allusion is deliberate).
Hynes works within the deliberately claustrophobic confines of Franics O’Connor’s usual set - an artificially reduced stage space in an aspect ratio of about 3:1 within which additional decorations and designs further compress and confine the characters. But it doesn’t actually feel very claustrophobic, it merely looks as though it’s meant to. Hynes blocks out the action in an oddly contradictory attempt to use the wide, unused space: staging, for example, a small but key scene next to photographs that occupy stage left far from the bar at stage right where the bulk of the focus tends to be. Though Hynes usually brings tremendous tension to her productions, there is very little here, and the again edgy tone of McPherson’s script, moving from profanity-laden guffaws and obvious laughs to would-be spine-shivering, really does not seem to sit well in this aesthetic space.