The Weir is, amazingly enough, the first play by an Irish playwright we have ever produced at THEATREWORKS. Considering the richness of Ireland’s dramatic heritage this seems absurd. It is absurd. Honestly, I think we were scared of Ireland. We felt if you wanted your Ireland you'd just have to go there.
I’ve been three times and can tell you it actually is greener than any green you have ever seen (and greener still when it turns up on the horizon after seven days on a gray sea, as it did when I took the Queen Mary across the Atlantic in 1949). The green is a measure of the land’s intensity and saturation, which are well beyond Technicolor or iPad brushes. The daily language too is gently intensified, saturated in poetry. It has more color, more rhythm, more naturally occurring figures than ours. It is certainly not English. It is Irish. In America or in England, the farmer is going to warn you about the bull. In Ireland I was told to “mind the gentleman there.” We were not confident our actors could master this way of speaking, and we certainly did not want to butcher it.
What’s more, Ireland is magic. You’ve heard about the clovers, the leprechauns, the witches, the druids and the black cat of Killakee. It’s just possibly the most richly haunted place on earth. Yet while Irish magic is the stuff of song and charms, that magic has rarely cast a dark spell on the stage, possibly because the theatre is such a concrete yet clearly pretend place where it is very hard to scare people. In a half century of theatre going I can recall many moments when the hair stood up on the back of my neck, but never because I was spooked the way I have been around a campfire, at a movie, or reading Stephen King on a dark and stormy night. When ghosts show up in a play they are very rarely terrifying: they look an awful lot like actors, often dressed in fog, armor or cheesecloth.
So it seemed to us that the real Ireland, the one we cared about, was inaccessible, especially in an American theatre. That was before we saw The Weir.
No ghosts, fairies or troubled spirits actually materialize in Conor McPherson’s drama. Yet this is a truly haunting play and entirely Irish. It takes place in a small rural pub, frequented by a very few local customers and a lot of wind. In the summer the area is full of German tourists in their caravans, but just now this is a desolate spot. The pub is desolate too, full of pauses. Brendan tends the bar, Jimmy takes care of his mum, Jack runs a garage and bets on the horses. The big news is that the house on the hill has been sold to a single young woman from Dublin looking for a little peace and quiet. She’s come to the right place. Jack later tells her, “You’re going to have a peace and quiet over load. Oh yeah.”
For the first of its 100 minutes it may seem like The Weir itself is suffering from a peace and quiet overload. When I saw it in London seven years ago in a matinee following a good lunch I confess I was dozing off at the start. We spend our time watching the locals pour down pints and small ones, while making small talk. We soak up the atmosphere. Time doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it did half an hour ago; there are no clocks or cell phones, and no one is in any hurry to do anything, partly because there isn’t an awful lot to do. Instead we join the characters, sense their loneliness, and share their company.
Things change when Valerie enters, ushered in by the more urban local realtor, Finbar, who is showing her off and showing her around. She’s in her thirties, and not the usual customer (she asks for white wine, which is finally served when Brendan finds that old and probably corked bottle out back). Then very slowly the magic steals in.
Based on very limited experience, I think this is how it goes in Ireland. Several years ago my cousins and I were sailing around Lake Shannon, and we stopped at a village reported to have a music pub. We were thrilled at the chance. We stepped on land and went down the road to the pub, where we were treated to a very cheesy guitarist playing pop songs to an electric amplifier, the kind of thing you hear in big city subways. So much for the music. Two of us stayed on for the extra pint to drown our sorrows and then walked into the night back to our boat. But we noticed a small side path to our left and we followed it---to another pub all by itself, with a violin on the stone wall. We went in. There was no music but several more instruments on the walls. We thought we might be on to something. We ordered more pints and a small one. Sometime later a man and his two red headed daughters came in, carrying fiddles. They sat in chairs in the middle of the room. They were joined by others, then a few more. Old and young. No names were given. There were maybe eight then a dozen sitting in a circle, and finally the music started. It wasn’t like the music you hear on the Celtic Hour or Prairie Home Companion. I suppose it was like that, but it seemed to come from a completely different world, sending great widening loops of reels spiraling into the night. We stayed and stayed, along with everyone else. We couldn’t get enough—no one could get enough. I count it one of the great musical experiences of my life, and I have had many.
The magic of The Weir begins when the locals begin to tell stories, which they do as easily and naturally as that pale red headed girl from Lake Shannon played her fiddle. It seems Valerie has bought the old Maura Nealon house, which had been built on the fairy road. There were old stories about the fairies knocking on the door, trying to get through on their way from the fort on the hill to the cove on the little pebbled beach. It’s a just a story of course, an old legend. Yet Valerie allows there is probably something to it.
Thus encouraged, the stories start to spiral into the night. Three of the men tell one, and these stories are the core of the play. By the time they are told, we too feel as if we were in the pub on a night when the wind was whistling off the sea, finding ourselves diverted, laughing, wildly entertained and pleasurably spooked. The boys are telling stories to impress the girl; they are showing off, and because they are Irish they are genetically unbeatable at their game. But their stories are more than entertainments, they are revelations of character. Seventy-five minutes into the play this little rural pub is full of presences--real and and otherworldly. The small remote bar starts to feel like a satellite in the ether of cosmic mystery, probing questions of rest after death.
There are two more stories; one is told by Valerie herself, which raises the stakes and completely changes the atmosphere. Then there is a final narrative, not really ghostly at all, and yet ending with a small moment of grace that seems both human and divine. This is not a Catholic play, but McPherson seems to have a special interest in how the spiritual can become manifest in life without any sort of operatic accompaniment. No angel crashing through the walls here. This is one reason why his plays seem full of wonder and have haunted audiences everywhere.
In the end we feel it was not only Maura Nealon’s house that was built on the fairy road, it was also this play that Conor McPherson wrote. And when you come to our pub on a dark and stormy night, we think you too might have moments of transport, mystery and grace—as well as a pint and a small one served on stage right after the stories are told.