“It’s Ophelia” the man behind me whispered as The Weir opened with the sound of wind whipping across the stage. This English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester co-production certainly chose an atmospheric night for its opening at the Exeter Northcott. Featuring a similar stormy night, Conor McPherson’s The Weir tells the story of what begins as a seemingly routine gathering of locals in the pub one night. However, there’s a shift in the tone of the evening with the arrival of rich, local businessman, Finbar, (Louis Dempsey) with Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), a woman from Dublin who’s recently moved to the area. Beginning with the telling of ghost stories and old folk tales to introduce Valerie to the colour of the local area, these stories begin to fold back to reveal a much darker side, and the depths of the characters underneath.
The Weir is characterised with an ache of loneliness that resonates throughout the play. The characters’ conversations indicate that these men are fragments from an old community that is becoming lost in the rush of the modern world. The isolation that this has brought them is successfully demonstrated in the staging of this production. During each wrenching monologue, the rest of the cast members draw back to the carpeted area around the bar. The speaker stands on a black reflective surface downstage, facing out towards the audience as they come to reflect on their own words. While the audience could watch Finbar’s shaking hand slop his pint at the recollection of his story, the other regulars are faced with his back; a physical barrier that isolates him from them. This means that despite the intimacy of his words, it seems that Finbar’s loneliness will prevail. The actors’ skilful use of silence at the end of the monologues enhances the realisation of each of these characters’ loneliness, that even after sharing such stories, they each still feel detached.
Another talent of this production was the set, which made the audience feel intimate with the play. By not using a raised stage, the designer, Madeleine Girling, ensures that there is one less barrier between the audience and the cast. The intimacy of the space was furthered by the work of the lighting designer, Lee Curran. During the stories, the main lighting fades out on the other cast members, leaving notes of blue and green that echo the supernatural element of the tales. The lighting focused on the speaker, so you were drawn into their story like another local listening in the pub; through this, the intensity of the narrative was realised. This meant any movements made by other cast members demanded subtlety so as not to distract, and any actions that are made are of significance. For example, when it becomes clear how vehemently personal Valerie’s story is, Brendan (Sam O’Mahony) bows his head, and Jim (John O’Dowd) brushes his hand across his chest in the sign of the cross. Combined with the real time of The Weir, this all creates the feeling that you really could have spent your evening in a pub, so much so that my friend and I just had to go for a pint after the play.
This isn’t to say that this production of The Weir was overwhelmingly intense with no relief. On the contrary, the actors effectively used the lighter moments of the piece to inject some humour into the taut atmosphere. At these points, a connection with the audience was again keenly felt. When Jack (Sean Murray), Brendan and Valerie chuckle over Jim’s attempts at comforting Valerie, the laughter bounced naturally between the cast members, into the audience and back out again to the stage. For me, this showed how successful the cast were in performing this realist play, in that their performance crossed the breach between the dialogue and the real world watching it.
A key aspect of the play is the way that the men in the pub react to the presence of Valerie. McPherson’s dialogue obviously gives a basis for this, for instance the broken women’s toilet being suggestive of how long it’s been since a woman was last in the pub. Happily for this production, the actors don’t leave this element of the play solely to the dialogue. The cast effectively characterise their roles in a way that indicates the awkwardness of what actor Sam O’Mahony describes as Valerie being “this exotic flower that suddenly gets presented in a pile of dung”. The manner in which Jim grips Valerie’s hand for so long that she feels forced to pull it away, for example, or the way that Valerie’s position as an outsider is symbolised in her wanderings around the edges of the stage, with arms protectively crossed. One weakness of Radmall-Quirke’s portrayal of Valerie, however, was her varying English accent, which, while it did distinguish her as an outsider from the pub’s regulars, didn’t mesh with her supposed background in Dublin.
Whether or not you believe in the supernatural beings that haunt The Weir, there’s no denying that there’s something magical about this production. The way it gave the audience an intimate insight into a community and the individuals within it was gripping. There’s something truly moving in The Weir’s exploration of loneliness and grief, tempered by bursts of laughter and the heartening bonds between the characters.
– Katrina Bennett
ALL IMAGES FROM: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/the-weir/