Colin McPherson’s play, The Weir, first opened in London on July 4th, 1997. It was supposed to run for four weeks but, due to demand, they decided to extend it to five weeks, then eight weeks, then nine weeks, and then finally because of its continuing popularity they moved the show into a larger theatre, the Duke of York’s, in St Martin’s Lane. And it continued to play there for the next two years. It is currently running at The Abbey Theatre from 26th November until January 14th.
The play began its lengthy gestation in the 1980s when in his mid-teens, Colin McPherson found himself going to visit his grandfather, Jack McPherson, regularly. The Sligo train from Connolly swept him from his adolescent angst in Dublin to an entirely different world where his grandfather lived alone, near Jamestown in Co. Leitrim. His grandfather’s little cottage was tucked away, down a dark winding boreen that ran alongside the River Shannon with its weir which gives the play its name. Beside the house was a fairy fort no one dared disturb.
In the evenings, grandfather and grandson would sit by the fire and Colin would be regaled by his grandfather with stories from his living memory: how a stooped man named McFadden had been cured of his ailment by the fairies; but when he returned again, asking for more favours, the fairies sent him away, twice as stooped over as he had been before.
He also told him how the house he grew up in had been built on a fairy road. And how knocking could sometimes be heard at the door in the dead of night. And how, as a boy, when the Civil War raged, he remembered a desperate man came to the door seeking refuge, but he was chased round the back of the house by other men who shot him out there.
The play itself opens as locals gather at the pub on a windy winter’s night. Local estate agent and hotelier Finbar (Peter Coonan) arrives with blow-in Valerie (an openly vulnerable Jolly Abraham) who has just recently arrived from Dublin. They settle into a storytelling session that turns darker and more personal as they take it in turn to share their experiences of their various brushes with the supernatural. At times ghostly and mesmerising, their tales draw Valerie into their world – but it is her story, when we finally get to it, which is the most gut-wrenching of all, stemming from the worst kind of tragedy.
The atmosphere is built through an utterly engrossing succession of monologues, in which each character is satisfyingly delineated. Brendan Coyle’s Jack sheds his cranky, contrary mask, while the brilliant Marty Rea conjures a wonderfully distinctive, quirky, but very believable Jim. Peter Cloonan peels away the bravura of Finbar to reveal his vulnerability. He apologises self-consciously as he feels he has revealed too much, giving the lie to the old stereotype of the brash non-talkative Irishman.
Fact, fiction, history, ghosts, religion, and hearsay are all woven together and for us who were lucky enough to be present at Caitríona McLoughlin’s production of the play in The Abbey Theatre, we were glad that Colin McPherson soaked it all up on those youthful excursions West. The play is a timely, glowing affirmation of the rural pub and its role as a sanctuary for wounded men – and women – at a time when that very institution is facing extinction. As the only woman present, Jolly Abraham’s Valerie is distinctive in more ways than one: as a blow-in, an American, and, for those present in the bar, their intended audience.
Caitríona McLaughlin directs with a finely balanced awareness of the comedy of McPherson’s script as well as the darker emotional moments, the necessary silences as well as the endless eyrie stories of fairies and ghosts and family loss, and the resulting deep trauma that ensues.
The production runs straight through for 100 minutes, but our attention is mostly focused on the actors throughout apart from the erratic and distracting musical score. 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. One small quibble: the Irish have given the world many iconic cultural nuggets including the traditional music session in the ‘local’ and so here the use of live music outside the pub provided by musicians Éamonn Cagney and Courtney Cullen is somewhat disconcerting and jars a little.
There are obvious parallels that can be detected between McPherson’s play and the earlier J. M. Synge classic The Playboy of the Western World. That play caused riots when first premiered in the Abbey Theatre on January 26th, 1907, nearly 115 years ago. The Weir has since created its own ripples and there are particular details within the play that firmly locates it in the 1990s, a time of great social and economic change in Ireland like its illustrious forerunner. However, the fact that we can accurately place it in a definitive timeline makes the universality of its themes even more penetrating. Ask anyone who has ever had a pint in Scanlan’s Bar in Knockaderry or in any rural pub in Ireland and they will agree with you, just as this production suggests: there is no better balm for loneliness than company.
Sadly, Jack McPherson never saw any of his grandson’s plays. He passed away before his grandson managed to get going as a writer, but something of those times he had spent with him in his lonely cottage in Leitrim had lodged somewhere in his subconscious. In this way, it may be that a play like The Weir comes through a writer rather than being intentionally composed. There is the sense that Colin McPherson heard it and wrote it down – and it works!
The Abbey stage has long been the place where such stories were told and present-day Abbey audiences should be very happy that we get to hear these stories commingling here with those riotous echoes from long ago.
Photo Credit: Ste Murray – Cover Image: Hazel Coonagh
Valerie – Jolly Abraham,
Finbar – Peter Coonan,
Jack – Brendan Coyle,
Brendan – Sean Fox,
Jim – Marty Rea,
Musician – Éamonn Cagney,
Musician – Courtney Cullen.