Left – Robert Menzies, Ian Meadows and Peter Kowitz. Cover – Greg Stone, Robert Menzies and Peter Kowitz. Photos – Jeff Busby
Since its first performance at London’s Royal Court in 1997, Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Weir has become something of a theatrical phenomenon. Words such as ‘unforgettable’ and ‘masterpiece’ are consistently attached to it; it has enjoyed long runs on both Broadway and the West End (including a recent revival); and it was won almost every major theatre award on offer. And while McPherson continues to write significant new plays (including 2013’s The Night Alive, winner of the New York Drama Critics Award), it’s The Weir for which he’s most likely to be remembered.
The plot of The Weir is deceptively simple. A couple of locals – Jack (Peter Kowitz) and Jim (Robert Menzies) – arrive at the small country pub in rural Sligo run by Brendan (Ian Meadows). Before long, Finbar (Greg Stone) – a former local who’s now something of a big man about town – arrives, bringing with him Valerie (Nadine Garner), a Dublin woman who’s just moved into the area. Over more than a few pints, four of the five tell a ghost story, each of the tales a little more unsettling than the one before.
There are few people who haven’t indulged in the vicarious horrors and delights of listening to a good ghost story – it taps into something both childlike and primal within us – and that’s perhaps one of the reasons this play has captured the public’s imagination. But what is most striking about The Weir is its unexpectedness, something which derives from McPherson’s facility to quietly embed within apparently straightforward scenarios such profound depths.
McPherson has spoken about the healing power of storytelling, its capacity to draw people together and shield them from what it is they most fear. And this is what’s at play in The Weir. Together, the characters are able to dabble in the unknown – in the uncertainty of what exists beyond death – in a way that, as individuals, they’re incapable of doing. In Valerie’s story in particular, as well as Jack’s second story, you can almost feel them prodding at their fear like they might prod a wound, testing its sensitivity, its truth. These are stories that have been bottled up, waiting their chance to be told, to be made real. And having at last found their moment, it seems unlikely that their tellers will ever recount these stories again.
There is something of a secular Mass about The Weir. The rites the characters follow, their sharing of food and drink, their immersion in the supernatural, and their skirting about of death and the afterlife as they tell their stories, all bring them to a point of communion. And it’s this common experience – McPherson seems to be suggesting – that shores up our humanity and gives us the capacity to endure.
There is a small handful of directors currently working in Melbourne who you’d trust with this play. Sam Strong is one of them, and he doesn’t disappoint. Strong brings to this production the delicate touch the play demands, precisely orchestrating the play’s rhythms and recurrent tonal shifts so that its layers are able to slowly reveal themselves.
The most valuable asset this production has is its cast (and kudos must go to Strong for his casting choices). McPherson leaves plenty of room within his scripts for the actors to work, and they all make the most of the opportunity. There’s a lovely finesse and tempo to their interactions, the way they play off each other, and they each listen to the others’ stories (in a play where listening is key) in such a way that they’re able to hint at their own dreads and sorrows without ever stealing the focus from the storyteller.
Peter Kowitz’s Jack – a bear-like, middle-aged bachelor – anchors the play. Prowling around the pub as though he owns it, Kowitz does a fine job of balancing Jack’s bluster with the hidden regrets that have, for most of his life, burdened him. Robert Menzie’s Jim is beautifully observed, his eager, darting eyes and his restless hands (itching about like they’re ready to grasp what’s left of the future) at painful odds with what his body – its bent, defeated posture – is telling you.
Greg Stone is at his irritating best as Finbar, the local boy who’s done well for himself. He brings the required restlessness and exuberance, upsetting the laconic air of the pub and paving the way for the storytelling that’s to come. Nadine Garner finds just the right note as Valerie, her constant smoothing down of her clothes as she settles herself, and the way she holds her words for a moment before releasing them, both astute measures of her vulnerability. And as pub-owner Brendan, Ian Meadows is a steadying presence. He hasn’t a lot to say, but in the way he moves, in his prevarications over whether to join the others in a drink, and in the way he keeps glancing at Valerie, you can discern within him the tension between the promise of change that Valerie represents and an ever-present worry that he’s destined to end up as yet another sad bachelor like Jim and Jack.
The lighting and sound designs (Matt Scott and Steve Francis) subtly underscore the shifting moods of the play, and the costume design (Dale Ferguson) is understated, yet effective (you can almost see Jim’s mammy fastening up his cardigan for him before he heads out into the cold). Ferguson’s set design – a tired-looking pub that seems to echo the weariness of its regulars – nicely frames the action, all the while bringing it as close to the audience as possible. You’re there in the pub, part of this community, listening to these stories, to the point that you totally forget you’re sitting in a theatre.
This is a near-faultless production of a remarkable play. Not to be missed.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Conor McPherson
Director Sam Strong
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 14 August – 26 September 2015
Tickets: from $73; under 30s from $36
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au