The Weir, Donmar Warehouse – A touching and melancholy work of humanity.

4.5 hearts

If you are anything like my theatre companion and put off by the kind of Irish theatre where women moan about their fickle drunkard husbands who spend their entire pay slip at the local pub then this play is for them.  It is Irish and men drink but there ends the similarities.  The Weir, by Conor McPherson, first performed at the Royal Court in 1997, is a beautifully crafted piece of storytelling as we rarely see anymore on stage.

The play is short in time (1 hour 45 minutes) but long in meaning and emotions.  The story, unfolds in real-time, over an evening at this Sligo pub where four men and one woman drink, banter, tease each other and tell tales.  At first the stories tend towards the supernatural but as the evening unfolds, the grim reality of events in the patrons’ lives is revealed.

We know this is a regular hangout when Jack, a mechanic and garage owner, enters the empty pub and helps himself to a draught all the while grumbling that the Guinness tap isn’t working.  He is soon joined by Brendan, the publican and then the odd-job man Jim.  Jack is a bit of a cantankerous character while Jim with his woolly jumper and big beard is a quiet mother’s boy.  The men quickly turn to the latest “big” news about their mate Finbar who has been playing tour-guide to a newcomer, Valerie, a pretty woman who has just rented a house in the area.

Brian Cox as Jack (Photo by Helen Warner)
Brian Cox as Jack (Photo by Helen Warner)

These men have known each other a long time and they all envy and dislike the locally made-good Finbar in equal measure.  When the big-talking hotelier and property dealer Finbar turns up with Valerie, the others are quick to take jabs at him.  Valerie, a wine drinking Dubliner, is a prize and the men try to outdo each other with the most interesting tale.  Valerie enters the unfamiliar surroundings eager to humour her companions, laughing at their silly stabs at one another.  We are soon regaled with stories of ghosts, hallucinations and a “Luigi” board.  When her turn comes, she delivers a personal tale of unbearable sadness touched with its own surreal twist.

Finbar and Jim depart leaving Brendan and Jack to comfort Valerie.  When Jack is asked about his unmarried status, he recounts how he made a hash of it many years ago: “And she just looked at me like I was just another guest at the wedding.  And that was that.  And the future was all ahead of me.  Years and years of it.  I could feel it coming.  All those things you’ve got to face on your own.  All by yourself.”  It’s a wonderfully tender moment from the hardened man who lets others see how lonely his life has been.

The Weir of the title is a hydroelectric dam near the pub that Finbar mentions to Valerie but tellingly symbolises the disrupted lives of the characters.  The play is warm and sad and touches upon these men’s frustrated inner lives and the missed opportunities to connect with others.  McPherson’s dialogues are beautiful and poetic, and infused with small details that reveal each character’s inner turmoil.  It is difficult to describe the play and do it justice but the Weir will surely enter into the cannon of modern classics as a beautiful, humorous and mesmerizing piece of theatre.

Josie Rourke brings out the best in the ensemble cast.  Brian Cox is fantastic as the cantankerous Jack who changes convincingly from grumpy friend to wounded lover, while Ardal O’Hanlon embodies perfectly the painfully shy odd-job man Jim.  Peter McDonald is warm and easy-going as the quiet barman Brendan.  And Risteárd Cooper plays the boastful Finbar with bravado.  Dervla Kirwan is quiet and subtle as Valerie.  The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is a beautiful, detailed vision of a remote Irish pub.  I defy anyone to remain unmoved by this touching and melancholy work of humanity.