Story telling is probably as old as man’s spoken word, and writer Conor McPherson with “The Weir” clearly is a master story teller in that age old tradition. At its heart, “The Weir” is a simple re-working of probably one of the oldest stories ever told – that of supernatural or unexplained events. Nothing fantastic here in the tales, just that little stretching and twisting of common and familiar events to make the listener wonder at the tale and maybe become a little uncomfortable or unsafe after its telling.
There are two great places to tell such a story – around a campfire at night or in a small rural village pub on a stormy night. With the latter, the ground for four tales of the unexplained is already firmly set for “The Weir” as we are all as an audience drawn immediately into the space of this small Irish pub by the combination of a great set design from Francis O’Connor and carefully used but very effective lighting by Simon Wilkinson. It is partly the reality of the set itself that gives our cast the foundations needed to all tell their tales upon.
At the very start there is nothing immediately outstanding about “The Weir”, and that is actually its strength…this is a simple traditional pub setting with characters that we are introduced to as we go along. The roles given to our five characters – Jack (Gary Lydon), Brendan (Brian Gleeson), Jim (Darragh Kelly), Finbar (Frank McCusker) and Valerie (Lucianne McEvoy) are not flashy, or over the top in any way and you could meet them pretty much in any similar pub. That is the strength of this play, that ability to just capture the ordinary details of ordinary people and the wonderful way in which the words flow from one character to another. It is only as we watch the conversation and the characters develop that you swiftly realise what an outstanding piece of story telling “The Weir” is.
That wonderful ordinariness is played with great skill by everyone in the cast. There are no parts here that upstage anyone else, no one more important to the story than anyone else and that all becomes clear as everyone (except Jim) tells their own story. It may seem from this review that the cast are not doing much, but they are...everyone has just simply become their character on stage and become “ordinary”.
If this was just a simple tale of telling ghostly stories then this play would probably never have become the classic piece of work it has become in such a relatively short time since its first performance in 1997. There is far more to this story and our five characters than just stories. These characters are real people and once you scratch away the surface of their bar room bravado what lies underneath is very different from what is on the surface. What draws Jack, Brendan and Jim to this place is not the drink but the companionship as underneath it all they are lonely men with nowhere else to go. Jack has never gotten over the girl he let get away from him in his youth, Jim is devoted to an aged and getting frail mother whom he lives with and although he pretends outwardly to like the single life, Brendan is just as lonely as his older friends.
Finbar is the slightly different one, he is married, and although he has started from the same place as everyone else (all their fathers knew one another too) has become a successful businessman and property developer. Finbar frequents the pub a lot less than his old friends.
Valerie is the new face in the village having moved from Dublin with, as it turns out, a lot of personal issues. What is interesting about Valerie is that throughout the story she is always her own strong and independent woman on an equal footing with everyone else in the bar. No traditional attitude here.
As I said at the beginning, Conor McPherson is a master story teller, but he has one skill that I rarely see used to such effectiveness, and that is to be able to just use silence and say nothing when required for amazing dramatic effect.
You know a story is working on stage (or anywhere – a book or television) when two things happen – you start to care about the characters and you actually want to hear the end of their stories. “The Weir” works wonderfully on both counts here and is a great example of how live theatre can draw you into a story the way no other media really can. Somehow you leave this show feeling that you have been sitting at a table in the bar just listening to the stories and overheard their talk between one another. You have a feeling of leaving that pub with them as the door is closed for the evening and you get up to leave the theatre.
If there is one thing a bit sad about this work though, it is that places like this little traditional pub with nothing much happening inside except characters from a community of all ages and backgrounds meeting in it are disappearing fast. “The Weir” reminds us all of what we are losing here.
Review by Tom King