When I met with actor, Sam O’Mahony, to discuss his role as Brendan in Mercury Theatre Colchester and English Touring Theatre’s co-production of The Weir, I was yet to see the performance myself at the Exeter Northcott Theatre. From some googling, I knew an outline of the plot but I was keen to hear how O’Mahony himself would describe The Weir.
He explained that The Weir “is presented as a story about five people, five very different people, in a pub over one windy night in a rural part of Ireland, telling ghost stories to keep themselves entertained. But, underneath that is a very profound examination of loneliness, and grief, and life after death, that I think resonates incredibly strongly after the play’s finished.”
During the performance, I certainly felt the importance of these themes which created an intense, haunting atmosphere, not least because of the supernatural twist of many of the tales. However, O’Mahony felt it important “not to present this play as an examination of loneliness and death, because it’s not, it’s a very heart-warming piece. I think that loneliness is probably the key theme but community is very much on its heels.”
I asked him whether this already established community meant that there was little development in the relationships between the characters during the play. “Well there is and there isn’t” he reflected “this is one of those plays where characters don’t have an arc. This idea that stories have to feature characters where they walk in as one person and they leave as another, it shouldn’t be all consuming. And I think in this play, you can decide whether those people have changed by the time they leave.”
At the end of the performance, I felt this perplexity about the characters’ futures, wondering whether by revealing these stories they will have discovered an unknown about themselves, or whether they’re too ingrained in their positions to make a change. O’Mahony believes his own character, Brendan, is in a slightly different position to the other characters since he “hasn’t yet had that event in his life that has fundamentally changed him for better or for worse”.
I was curious to hear why O’Mahony thought that Brendan has this critical difference to the other characters. He believed that Brendan’s significance is that “he’s the owner of this bar, he’s the youngest character in this play, and he’s the only one who doesn’t have a story to tell, and I think that’s very deliberate. In a way, he’s the facilitator of all of these people. He’s the person that provides not just the very obvious elixirs of alcohol and cigarettes and warm fire, and allows these stories to come out and the truths that accompany those stories, but he also balances the space. The character’s responsibility in the play is to keep things going, keep things calm, making sure relationships don’t get too hot or too cold”.
O’Mahony skilfully demonstrated this purpose of his character by his interactions with the rest of the cast. Throughout the play, you could see that everyone felt that they had a special relationship with the barman. He was the one they all turned to exchange wry glances or compassionate looks as the tales were told. In this way, you really felt that he did “balance the space” because he was a base point for each of the characters to turn towards.
This synergy between the cast is something that often feels lacking from a performance and can taint what should be a natural relationship between characters. O’Mahony believed that for The Weir, their success with this was due to the cast, saying “we’re very blessed with the relationship we have, we trust each other enough to keep an eye on how things are going, if things are getting a bit slack or things need to be tightened up. And I’ve rarely had that relationship in a cast, because actors can have egos. This is a cast that has very little ego, I’d say zero ego. The ego comes about the play. All we care about is making this play good so our own parts in it merely serve that, and that allows us to communicate very freely that things can be improved.”
I presumed that to have this type of relationship within a cast, a lot of time must have been spent working on how the characters interacted and played off each other. O’Mahony felt that the key to this was in their rehearsal process.
“Adele [Thomas], our director, she works in an incredibly detailed way, so the first two weeks of that rehearsal was literally just sitting around the table talking through that play, and talking about every single little detail. We talk about a lot of people that aren’t seen in the play and we had to come up with back stories for every single one of those people, we had to find pictures, we had a map of where every single thing was. We had a rehearsal room covered in photos that we’d found on the internet to say, ‘that’s what we think that looks like’, so that we all had the same images in our head when we were talking about those things, and as a result of that we have a very detailed dynamic, and a very comfortable dynamic. When someone says something, or when someone looks to someone else, we know what we’re talking about.” Was working in that level of detail not a bit tedious after a while? “For me it was a bit of a baptism of fire not having done a play in a while” he admits, “but god it was worth it, it was really inspiring.”
I asked whether working in such detail from the beginning allowed the play to continue developing during the tour. His response was very assertive. “Absolutely, and it will until we finish it in March. That is the thrill of doing a play for a long time, and it has to be. If you’ve nailed it by press night, and you’re not going to change anything, you’ll just fall asleep. If you’re staying listening and watching, and actually in it, then you constantly figure out amazing little ways to make things better.”
For my final question I was curious to know whether, with a play full of stories, did he have a favourite?
“My favourite story, is the last one. It’s the one that’s not a ghost story, but for me it’s the one that’s the only real ghost story of the play, because it’s about a lost love that you can never forget, and that for me is a real ghost. Jangling chains or whatever is one thing, but that one at the end, it resonates so much more.” I asked if he felt that this story gave the play a particular message. “It’s completely subjective but for me I think this play is a warning of sorts…. I think it’s about finding people and if you do find someone, don’t lose it.”
Keep an eye out for our review of The Weir later today.
– Katrina Bennett
FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/the-weir/