The Weir, winner of the 1997 Olivier Award for Best New Play, by Conor McPherson is at The King’s Theatre as part of its 20th anniversary tour, and for one week only (Tue 20 to Sat 24 Feb) the stage of the King’s Theatre is skilfully transformed into the remote but warm haven from the chilling outside winds that is the small Irish pub that our cast meet in to tell their stories of the supernatural and the unexplained.
All good dramatic theatre starts with the one thing –“The Words”. If they are not put together with skill by the writer to create real characters and tell a story that pulls you into it very quickly, then there is for me no recovery from that point no matter how skilled the cast may be in their abilities. Conor McPherson is a great user of words, and this early work from him always to me seems to be more of a particular image in his mind than any attempt to write a classic play (even though he did just that). “The Weir” breaks so many rules on how to write a story – there is a beginning, a middle, but no real end to this story, no resolution of any of our characters. In this story, we are simply occupying as an audience member an unseen seat somewhere in that Irish pub room listening to the stories that they are telling, and watching how they interact with one another. We are almost another unseen ghost ourself to the story tellers. I think that lack of any character resolution and that feeling of just dropping in on 100 minutes or so of other people’s lives is what has always attracted me to this work, that and its sheer ordinariness.
“The Weir” is a dialogue driven story, and if you are going to play one of the five people in this story then you not only have to have a high degree of acting skill, but foremost have to be a natural story teller (not everyone can do both convincingly). There are also lifelong relationships between our rural cast with good and bad points coming to the surface, and for “The Weir“ to work properly we as an audience have to believe that we are amongst people who have known not only each other, but each other’s families for a very long time, and our male cast of Louis Dempsey (Finbar), Sean Murray (Jack), John O’Dowd (Jim) and Sam O’Mahony (Brendan) create a believable and self contained world on stage. Coming in as the outsider to this closed community is Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Valerie), and the reactions to her are just as much a part of this story as the tales of supernatural.
These stories are for the most part not tales of terror in the modern television or cinema sense, but based on the ghosts and faeries stories of old tradition as they are handed down from generation to generation in rural communities with the stories getting a little enhancement and twist by the story teller with each telling and probably each new drink.
Like all good stories, this one operates on more than one level as other strands interweave with the main story, and the reason why so many of our story tellers tonight spend so much of their time in this pub is answered – they are lonely, and the friendship of one another has replaced for them the life partners that they for one reason or another have never had.
“The Weir” is a wonderful slice of rural life that has sadly gone forever now in so many communities, and our cast are wonderful here in bringing this all to life. This is though an extraordinary story of the very ordinary, and that lack of traditional story telling and resolution at the end may not appeal to everyone, but the massive success of “The Weir” over the past 20 years does prove that it appeals to an awful lot of people out there.
Review by Tom King