It burns slowly, this one – perhaps that’s why it’s burned so long. Like a grate topped with peat it smoulders and crackles, lying low and dim until it has sneaked into every corner of the room. Josie Rourke’s quietly chilling revival comes to the West End after a dominating run at the Donmar last year, where it acted as a sort of primer for McPherson’s latest play, the wise and hopeful The Night Alive. Viewed after that more forceful piece, The Weir surprises most in its restraint, evidencing a maturity that grew early in McPherson, a warm empathy with his characters but also a keen sense of evil that gives his work its most disturbing qualities.
McPherson’s first hit play is set in a windswept Irish boozer as four booze hounds swap ghost stories around the fire to entertain young visitor Valerie, a mysterious woman from Dublin who is moving into the rural isolation of their world. The stories of faerie roads and ghostly visitations mingle in the wash with reflections on the circumferences of their lives, and the bittersweet game begins to take on the qualities of a cleansing or an exorcism, or perhaps an invocation.
It’s determinedly gentle in structure and pacing, moving at the comfortable rhythms of pints and shorts downed, cigarettes broken and smoked and petty arguments sparked and resolved. Brian Cox is terrific as irritable, soft-hearted Jack, reluctant master of revels, a born story-teller who shorted out his life through an inertia that looks distinctly like fear. Ardal O’Hanlon is perfectly cast as quiet innocent Jim, and they’re well balanced by the excellent Dervla Kirwan, whose own unexpected story is painful to listen to. Simon Stephens mentions in the introduction to his Plays: One that it was the existence of The Weir that prevented the Royal Court from producing his own pub-play Christmas, and it doesn’t feel inconceivable that some of the tinder for his later masterpiece Sea Wall was gathered from Valerie’s unbearable story here.
Its lack of aggressive force can leave The Weir feeling occasionally underpowered, particularly in the early sections, and Rourke makes no efforts to shake this up. Her production is skilfully, deliberately paced, as detailed, real and evocative as Tom Scutt’s retina-precise pub set. Compared to a Martin McDonagh, for instance, the laughs come sparingly, but this is because McPherson avoids grotesques and refuses to ‘perform’ Irishness. There may be hints of Irish folklore and there may be bottles of Guinness, but this is a straighter play with more serious intentions. The lack of ugliness among the characters, who apart from blow-hard businessman Finbar (a squirmingly great Risteárd Cooper) are an honest and likeable gathering, is balanced by the genuine horror which the characters hint at through their stories.
The text which The Weir most closely resembles is James Joyce’s classic collection The Dubliners. It has the same subtly complex network of reflections and recurrences in its stories, which build to create a picture of the world that is shaded bleaker and darker with every brush-stroke. Here, as in Joyce, it is a world that exists on both sides of the veil. The ghost stories of The Weir suggest and develop an interlocking image set of childhood, haunting and corruption. McPherson may close on a note of possible healing and escape, but it doesn’t erase the picture of an other-world of predation and fear that the stories develop.
It may not have you bolt-upright in your West End seat, but Rourke’s revival of this muted modern classic will cling to you for a good while afterwards.