Conor McPherson’s The Weir takes place in a rural Irish pub in “Northwest Leitrim or Sligo.” I worry about locations that have an or in them as a potential blurrer of vision. I am likewise worried about locales that are seedy Irish pubs: How much more inundation by booze and blarney can our woozy heads withstand? In this particular pub, there hangs, among others, a picture of a nearby weir, which gets briefly commented on as regulating “the water and generating power for the area.” Is that enough to make it the play’s title?
A weir is a dam placed across a river to raise or divert the water, or a fence in a stream to catch or retain fish. I submit that the eponymous weir is in fact Brendan Byrne’s pub, where drink and chitchat manage to divert the onrushing waters of life for a bit; but also where the poor, heavy-drinking fish of the play, four men and a woman, are trapped by their memories, anxieties, and unrealized expectations into consuming pint after pint of liquor and loads and loads of palaver. All but Brendan, the youngish owner and barkeep, have tales to spin: tales of the supernatural in which they were involved but that may be merely delusional. Either way, they raise the possibility of a third definition: A weir may just be weird with the d apocopated.
McPherson is preoccupied with the supernatural, in this particular instance ghostly presences. Ghosts are the obverse of religious coin, rife in Ireland; there is nothing like the Holy Ghost to beget in the untutored mind unholy ghosts. Here we have an aging bachelor of a garage owner, Jack, and a jack-of-all-trades, Jim, as regulars in Brendan’s pub. Then there is Finbar, the middle-aged married man renting an old house to Valerie, a somewhat mysterious Dubliner who has chosen to relocate to this backwater. He has been showing her the area, with perhaps hidden designs. This, naturally, brings them to the pub.
After that, it is talk, talk, talk. Evidently, the people who give out awards in England (four of them to The Weir) are suckers for boozy Irish barroom talk, a point for each tongue-loosening pint. And there may be a perennial fascination with the brogue, even as we here nurture a warm blend of amusement and patronization for southern accents. Certainly the characters in The Weir speak in aromatic Hibernian cadences as well as words and phrases whose arcaneness adds spice to the stew.
Rae Smith’s set is the ultimate in seediness, the kind of place that may well spread cheer by looking worse than the hovels its clientele might inhabit. Paule Constable’s lighting starts out cozy enough, then gradually fades to last-ditch chiaroscuro – nice work. And Paul Arditti’s sound design aptly conveys the wind howling outside, giving rise to some discussion about whether it is northerly or westerly. Ian Rickson’s staging does its best to make a fatally static play come fitfully alive, even though its action is mere fidgeting.
For static The Weir crushingly is. The most powerful barroom plays – The Iceman Cometh, The Time of Your Life, The Playboy of the Western World – infiltrate their stasis with enough action to set the chatterers’ teeth chattering. But the stories that populate McPherson’s stage are at once too remote and, I fear, too contrived to give us much of a sense of a world beyond this pub, whose perimeters are more confining than those in O’Neill, Saroyan, and Synge. Although The Weir presents racy enough characters, it doesn’t find much to do with them.
This is assuredly not the fault of the actors – Kieran Aherne, Brendan Coyle, Dermot Crowley, Michelle Fairley, Jim Norton – who give lovingly rounded performances. Four of them must deliver long and difficult arias, and they acquit themselves with verve and finesse. Finally, though, plays are made not by acting but by writing.