Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Weir - tales of the unexpected build empathy across shared solitude (Lyric until 30 Sep)

It’s hard to believe that Decadent Theatre first brought their production of The Pillowman to Belfast two and a half years ago, back in March 2015. The experience stays with me. I can still close my eyes and return to the atmosphere and emotion of the titular story at the centre of the play, and as my mind retells the tragic tale, tears come to my eyes. Without fail.

So my expectations were high about the company’s return to the Lyric stage with The Weir, Conor McPherson’s ten year old play about four men telling tales in a Leitrim pub, showing off to an outsider Valerie who is spending time in town.

Jack (played by Marty Maguire) lets himself into the empty pub and shows his familiarity with the premises by nipping round the back of the counter and fixing himself a drink, leaving money on the counter. Single and wearing a dark suit whose jacket doesn’t quite match the trousers Jack is heading out the far side of middle age. He starts sentences and then hands them onto the much younger barman Brendan to finish. The pair are incredibly comfortable in each other’s presence, yet the relationship has little depth. Another local Jim (Frankie McCafferty) also props up the bar, less loquacious, and keen to dampen dissent and resolve conflict.

The regulars gossip about affluent Finbar who allegedly owns half the town, including a rival hostelry The Arms. There’s an edge of scandal around the idea that this married man is driving a young woman around the area showing her the sights. But they can’t wait to meet her when they stop off at The Weir. The sharp-tongued and apparently savvy Finbar (Garrett Keogh) swans in with his sharp suit and fancy slip on shoes and rounds are bought and a city drink is found while they begin to regale Valeria (Kerri Quinn) with local tales.

It becomes obvious that the play has a long fuse that’s going to burn throughout the 105 minute no interval production. The bang is going to come at the end. We’re building up to something. We must be, because the naturalistic dialogue with its stops and starts doesn’t build much tension.

The stories start and Jack’s tale of fairies is far from the grisly Grimm tales of The Pillowman. (Though Maguire does make the audience jump in their seats, something that the horror film IT fails to do.) Finbar goes next. Jim’s graveyard account has the potential to disturb, but the telling of the story skips over the twisted details and hurries to its conclusion.

McPherson’s script keeps Brendan the barman too busy filling his customers’ bladders to have time to tell a story. So the fourth in the series comes from Valerie who finally reveals the reason she has left Dublin and travelled more than 100 km inland to spend time in the middle of nowhere. There’s a feeling of raw honesty in Quinn’s recounting of her character’s personal tragedy.

At last there’s a connection. One hand rests on top of another’s hand, and a bridge of empathy is built across the weir of stories and shared solitude, and I connect. A woman a few rows behind me wails. But the moment and the tenderness are fleeting. The mood shifts. And as the audience leave the theatre, there is neither a sense of eeriness hanging over them nor a deep sadness at the human suffering on show.

There are some great moments as the characters switch from congenial banter to needle each other before twisting well practised knives as if following Finbar’s mantra of having “an eye for the gap: exploit the weakness”. Director Andrew Flynn uses the constrained space well and it feels very natural when the men stand at the fire to face their audience at the bar.

Owen McCarthaligh’s set with its corner bar, turf fire and painted over wallpaper contains few surprises, though the wobbly coat hooks won’t last the expected busy summer seasons when “the Germans” arrive in to take in the view from the top field. Ciaran Bagnel’s lighting is very subdued: the low sun that blazes in the saloon doors doesn’t set in the way a modern production might expect.

All these little disappointments and missed potential mounted up, leaving me wishing that The Weir had more consistently grabbed hold of the power that lies in the script. With a few more rounds under their belts, the production may yet gel and become the stuff of legend around the Lyric bar in years to come.

The Weir runs in the Lyric Theatre until 30 September.

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