Conor McPherson’s breakthrough 1997 play is such a perfect – and perfectly self-contained – piece of art that perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s taken 15 years for anyone to attempt a major London revival. Because frankly, what are you going to do with it?
Its rural Irish pub setting, beautifully ramshackle characters and carefully constructed ebb and flow of its dialogue are not up for negotiation, and commercially speaking there’s not much chance of topping the original Royal Court production’s huge transatlantic success.
Still, it’s far too good not to be revived, and I’m very glad Donmar boss Josie Rourke was the one to do it: she’s always had a way with an Irish play, and her 250-seat theatre is the perfect venue for this intimate evening of stories in the dark.
Tom Scutt’s pub set is immaculately detailed – as near as I could tell you could actually pour yourself a pint (of, er, something) from the working Harp tap. But it’s Rourke’s cast who conjure up the Irish night so exquisitely: the wonderful Brian Cox leads them as good-natured old grump Jack, with excellent accompaniment from Ardal O’Hanlon’s socially inept mechanic Jim, Peter McDonald’s level-headed publican Brendan, a brilliantly gauche Risteárd Cooper as local magnate Finbar and Dervla Kirwan as Valerie, a mysterious Dubliner who has just moved into the village.
Individually they’re all lonely drifters; together they’re a strangely potent little community, as raucously funny pub banter gradually drifts into the elegant recounting of ghost stories that increase in potency with each teller, until Valerie’s unexpected contribution stuns them all.
As with much of McPherson’s work, magical realism nibbles enticingly at the edges of ‘The Weir’, but the climax of the evening isn’t anything supernatural, but rather Jack’s haunting story – beautifully delivered by Cox – of how he came to be alone, a living ghost of sorts.
After the grandiose misfire of McPherson’s last play ‘The Veil’, Rourke’s production is a reminder of him at his intimate, storytelling best – it whets the appetite for his new play ‘The Night Alive’, which follows ‘The Weir’ into the Donmar next month. Andrzej Lukowski