Rural Ireland is poverty stricken and full of superstitious alcoholics – or so it would seem if you choose to take the world of Conor McPherson’s The Weir (now playing at The Donmar Warehouse) as indicative of a lifestyle. Before I’d moved to the UK, I’d never heard that the stereotype (or one of) of Irish people was that they were superstitious, but this is the second play I’ve seen set in modern Ireland that takes that tack. Is this really the point the playwright is trying to make? The set up for this play seems as stale and backwards as the concept of a world where a pack of cigarettes could be paid for with pocket change and a twenty pound note would be a rare sight in a pub.
But … I don’t know about these stereotypes. What I do know about is plot and character and setting. And The Weir is, at its heart, a ghost story, or a series of ghost stories, which we, the audience, get to listen to just like we were all crowded around a fire in a dark house in the winter. It takes the opportunity of people’s reactions to show the character of the people in the play, not what kind of “characters” they are but what kind of character they have, and by doing this we come to see them, not as a bunch of drunks trying to one-up each other, but as a group of individuals carefully given life by McPherson’s script. There’s “local lad made good,” a swaggering braggart who wants to show off in front of the other guys (Risteard Cooper); the helpful hand and peacemaker (Ardal O’Hanlon); the kind-hearted barman whose future happiness may be in question (Peter McDonald); and the happy go lucky, down on his luck guy who’s made some mistakes he can’t get past (Brian Cox). And then, into this knot of known quantities, comes a woman (Dervla Kirwan). I wondered where the play would go with her, what her role would be; and, in the end, I concluded, her role was to be a foil to allow each of the men to show their true natures. The well-to-to-guy comes off as shallow, protective of the social order, and quick to cast of people who upset his view of the world; the peacemaker continues to be kind but unwilling to take a stand; the down on his luck guy still good hearted but more of a sad case; the bartender someone who will stand by you when the chips are down. And the woman, well, she becomes someone who has a past, and someone whose future you wonder about, and you can’t help but hoping that somehow she and the bartender wind up together.
The setting is perfectly realistic as an old bar; although the accents seem occasionally forced, the acting is smooth and professional; and, added together, the evening has all the ingredients to let you sit back and enjoy stories and place and the strange way people behave when they feel their lives are being challenged – sometimes in ways that do them credit, sometimes in ways that show what they’re really made of isn’t much to be proud of. It was a good night out, a lovely evening of theater, and both quick (at just under two hours) and the right kind of fast, as each person’s tale drew me in so much the evening flew by. Nice job, Josie.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 24th, 2013. The Weir continues through.June 8th.)