Abbey Theatre, Dublin
A dark country road in the west of Ireland. A ramshackle bar. A stranger arrives, and a transformative story is told. If JM Synge’s tragicomedy The Playboy of the Western World comes to mind while watching Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir it is no coincidence: the play is drawn from the same rich well of folklore that so inspired Synge, listening through the gap in the floorboards of Aran Island cottages, just as McPherson listened at his grandfather’s knee. Where Synge’s play is thick with dramatic events, however, McPherson’s play is defined by its inaction. Here the conflict and catharsis lie in the act of storytelling and the confirmation of being heard.
The setting is a pub in Co Leitrim, where barman Brendan (a stoic Sean Fox) struggles to make ends meet at the tail end of winter. The wind is rattling the windows but the stove is lit, and it is a welcome place of refuge for bachelors Jim (a stooped and sensitive Marty Rea) and Jack (a gruff and guarded Brendan Coyle). When local estate agent Finbar (an oleaginous Peter Coonan) arrives with blow-in Valerie (an openly vulnerable Jolly Abraham), they settle into a storytelling session that turns darker and more personal as they take it in turns to share their experiences with the supernatural.
Caitríona McLaughlin directs with a finely balanced awareness of the comedy of McPherson’s script as well as the darker emotional moments, and the necessary silences as well as the stories. The production runs straight through for 100 minutes, but our attention is tuned to the actors throughout. Sarah Bacon’s authentically worn set sits at an angle on the right-hand side of the stage against a stormy sky lit by Jane Cox, whose subtle design also helps focus the formal storytelling set pieces. Less effective is the use of live music: musicians Éamonn Cagney and Courtney Cullen skulk around the skeleton of a derelict car, an intervention that dilutes the tightly held tension of the bar-room stage.
There are particular details within The Weir that firmly locate the play in the 1990s, a time of great social and economic change in Ireland. However, the specificity makes the universality of its themes even more penetrating. As the act of audience communion surely proves, there is no better balm for loneliness than company.
Runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, January 14th