First published in The Times, Thursday January 21 2016
Show don’t tell – that’s the standard advice given to aspiring playwrights. Yet, Conor McPherson’s masterpiece, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1997, famously never shows us the ghosts that populate his characters’ bar room yarns and confessions. This poignant, sometimes funny and sometimes melancholy play goes back to the very basics of storytelling, requiring its audience to listen hard to a series of evocative exchanges and monologues that illuminate the characters and haunt the imagination.
Amanda Gaughan, the director, has assembled a top-notch cast of five for this revival of The Weir as part of the Royal Lyceum company’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The opening sequence, in which “single lads” Jack (Gary Lydon) and Jim (Darragh Kelly) share a round in Brendan’s (Brian Gleeson) quiet pub deep in the Irish countryside, immediately captures the disenchantment in these men’s lives, and the ways they find to plug the silence with banter, leg-pulling and circular conversations about the weather.
Their routine is disrupted by the arrival of Valerie (Lucianne McEvoy), a blow-in from Dublin, who is being squired around the area by local-lad-made-good, Finbar (Frank McCusker). The scene is set for an evening of strange tales that moves almost imperceptibly from harmless lore to something altogether more macabre. When Valerie, hitherto peripheral to the action, pitches in with a ghost story of her own, the effect is as moving as it is hair-raising.
These tales may touch on the supernatural but the dialogue remains earthy, free of tricks, close to human speech. The rhythm of Gaughan’s spare, unfussy production is occasionally disrupted by the odd hesitation or cluttered line, but on the whole the cast navigate the mix of humour and poignancy with refreshing understatement. Just as Francis O’Connor’s design, beautifully lit by Simon Wilkinson, hints at something otherworldly just beyond the everyday setting, so this ensemble achieves a sense of the numinous that lingers in the silence at the end of the play.