Back in the 1970s, the film company Amicus made several portmanteau horror films which told eerie, sometimes light-hearted, but always gruesome tales of misfortune and tragedy. They were like Hammer films, but more lurid and macabre.
Conor McPherson’s The Weir – celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – would make a cracking portmanteau horror film, with its four spine-chilling folk tales framed by an overarching story about a bunch of people whiling away an evening in a rural Irish pub. There’s even a bonus tale in the form of a melancholy reminiscence of lost love and missed opportunity.
There’s a good reason why McPherson won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1999, because The Weir is a haunting, bittersweet, sometimes unsettling, often heartwarming story which beautifully reflects the laid-back, pastoral way of life in rural Ireland, as well as showing how we all carry with us our own demons and fears, which are often waiting keenly to jump to the surface if we let them.
The play – a straight 100 minutes, wisely with no interval – takes place entirely in a country pub designed with bags of character and attention to detail by Madeleine Girling. The set looks lived in and real, and is lit beautifully by Lee Curran, who reflects the atmosphere and moods of the characters on stage with subtle changes and adroit illumination throughout. It’s barely noticeable in real-time, but every time a character relates their story, Curran takes down the lights almost imperceptibly to focus the audience in on their words, like we’re all gathered round a roaring fire alongside them, listening to tales of faeries and spirits that go knock-knock in the night. The clever lighting goes hand in hand with Adele Thomas’s thoughtful and intelligent direction, meaning that when a character begins to tell a story, the attention is on them and them alone – the other actors close down too, and home in on the words being woven. It’s magical, as is Richard Hammarton’s melancholic, pensive musical score.
Three of the four resident Irishmen (barman Brendan excluded) have a spooky tale to tell based upon the folklore or old wives’ tales of the area. There’s a shiversome tale of faeries knocking at the door, another of a little girl who is terrified of a ghostly woman watching her from the stairs, and another pitch black story of a gravedigger who meets a dead man with a particularly unpleasant last wish. Each of these ghost stories are told with spellbinding magnetism by the actors, each growing in spookiness and ickyness to culminate in a fourth tale told by newcomer Valerie which reaches deep into your chest and rips out your heart. It proves that everybody has a tale to tell, a darkness they try and light, a shadow they can’t outrun…
Sean Murray plays the good-hearted mechanic Jack with bags of Irish twinkle, but also layers of melancholy which portray a man with regrets, which we learn much more about as the play develops. Towards the end, Murray delivers Jack’s own personal tale of tragedy with an almost overwhelming truthfulness, such that you’re left in no doubt that this character exists in real life, somewhere in rural Ireland.
Louis Dempsey’s hotelier Finbar and John O’Dowd’s bachelor Jim have their own sadnesses to bear to, portrayed with nuance and care, while Sam O’Mahony’s barman Brendan is a sweet, well-meaning young man whose ambitions don’t really go beyond the here and now. The older Jack can see his young self in Brendan, and urges him to find a girl and make something of his life, but it seems Brendan is happy to simply plod along in the life he knows. As is Jack, as is Jim, and to some extent Finbar. It’s a reflection of how rural life can not only suffocate ambition, but almost kill it at birth. The lights and commotion of larger conurbations – whether it’s London, Dublin, or even the local town of Carrick – can seem daunting to someone with a remote rural upbringing. What could the big smoke offer a man who feels he has everything right here at home?
This melancholy underpins the entire play, and manifests also in Valerie, who has decided to move to the area to start a new life. Played with astonishing clarity and intelligence by Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Valerie is the sort of woman people instantly warm to. She’s sensible but funny, polite but chatty, and the local Irishmen are keen to look after her and take her in as one of their own. It’s clear from the very start that Valerie has her own darkness following her around, and when we learn what secret she carries with her, the heartstrings get well and truly yanked along by some fiercely candid storytelling on McPherson’s part.
It’s particularly clever that the tales the Irishmen tell all seem to have a resonance with Valerie’s personal tragedy, whether it’s a knocking in the walls, or a menacing presence waiting for a young child. Each spooky tale touches something raw in her own story, but somehow she gains comfort from the fact other people experience the unexplained, as she has.
And that is essentially what’s at the heart of The Weir. The ancient art of storytelling will never die away. Mankind thrives on a tale well told (and there are few better storytellers than the Irish). The Weir tells haunting tales of fairy roads and menacing spirits, of lost love and telephone calls from beyond the grave, and it’s the power of these tales – written with visceral sincerity and spine-chilling clarity by McPherson, and related magnetically by a cast at the height of their chemistry – which draws the audience in most. No wonder The Weir won such acclaim all those years ago – you get at least six captivating stories for the price of one, and none of them leave you unmoved.