Saturday 7 December 2019

Theatre: No last orders in sight for drinking play 'The Weir'

Pub talk: Brian Cox, Peter McDonald, Ardal O'Hanlon and Risteard Cooper in 'The Weir'
Pub talk: Brian Cox, Peter McDonald, Ardal O'Hanlon and Risteard Cooper in 'The Weir'

Maggie Armstrong

Twenty years ago, a 25-year-old Conor McPherson wrote a play about four men and a woman sitting in a pub in Leitrim, telling ghost stories. He wrote it with a biro "in about 10 hours" and gave the script to his little sister with £100 to type it up. "When she typed it up, she said, 'I think this is really good.' I was like, Oh, great."

The Weir is back in its native land with a tour from Decadent Theatre. Interviewed over black tea in Dún Laoghaire, the UCD Dramsoc big fish who became an international playwright and screenplay writer is nervous, deadpan and quietly brilliant.

It was McPherson's breakout, when director Ian Rickson got hold of The Weir. Unheard of today, there was no rewriting. What you see on stage this summer is the first draft, scribbled in six short blasts over those 10 hours.

In July 1997, it had a soft opening in the Royal Court which, being refurbished, had been packed off into two rooms in the West End's Ambassadors Theatre. The modest Irish play was mounted in the small upstairs room, where they built a basic bar and filled the theatre with "higgledy-piggledy chairs and benches".

The north Dubliner was sleeping in an actor friend's flat in Camden Town when Rickson telephoned him, saying: "You should go and look at the reviews." He went down to the local garage to find lavish praise (The Guardian critic Michael Billington even bought tickets for lots of his friends). The run of three weeks was extended to nine weeks. Then, the play was transferred to a bigger house in the West End, "and they kept recasting it". One cast headed for Broadway: McPherson rose and rose.

When he got a call to say he had won an award, he was working on his next play in the manner he describes as "monomaniacal" and he asked: "Well what is it? They were like: 'It's the Olivier Awards.' And I was like 'ugh, god'. I was just totally ignorant."

It scooped the Olivier, Critics' Circle, Evening Standard and George Devine awards.

The Weir is one of McPherson's drinking plays, a complete world of lonesome bachelors in an old man's pub. He wouldn't write it now, he says. But in his 20s, he had an "intimate understanding" of pubs, of how "you could go into a bar for six hours. At that time, there was nothing that I would rather do".

He almost suffered organ failure and was told it was a case of "stop or die". Freed of alcohol for 15 years, his life as a writer of more than a dozen plays, including The Seafarer and The Night Alive, has been "lucky", but no less interesting. "Thankfully, the plays were still coming from a murky place. You don't need drink to make your life messy. Life is messy."

What makes The Weir still potent after 20 years of revivals? For me, it is the ghostly tale told by the play's only woman. A tragedy that won't be spoiled here.

McPherson has never seen a ghost, but says: "As a kid, I always thought I was very close to it happening, in a way that wasn't very nice. That you would feel, this is really freaky! At night time…" He loved Stephen King books, horror films, ghosts and vampires. As a teenager, visiting his grandfather in the hamlet Jamestown near Carrick-on-Shannon, he was told stories about "fairies and banshees". He doesn't see much difference between "the natural and the supernatural," or between gods and spirits. "I think it's all a mystery. Being in the world is a mystery to me."

Today, in his prime, he still thinks of ghosts and gods, but he is also troubled by the "glass ceiling" for women in theatre, that "most plays put on are by men, and most plays written by men are about men". On Waking the Feminists, he wishes there was something he could do other than continue to hire all-female crews for his heavily male casts.

But writing for women doesn't come as freely to him as writing for men. "Whenever I've written plays that have more women than men, they don't seem to be the ones that quite go on to have loads of productions."

He would like to see a "childcare grant" for women playwrights who reach that tricky age of choosing whether to become mothers or not. "I don't think anybody realises what having children does to your life," says the father of one. "It just totally obliterates your time."

With a new translated play from German, The Nest, opening in the Young Vic this September, a BBC drama going into production, and the first draft of a movie adaptation of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl for Disney delivered, McPherson's mind is in many monomaniacal places at once these days. But he finds he has things to learn from the "irrational energy" of The Weir.

"What you're essentially always trying to recapture as a playwright is the state of blissful ignorance of when you were younger.

"Because when I wrote the play, I had no idea it was going to do so well, the language is atrocious, the swearing - it doesn't give a f**k what anyone thinks!"

The Weir moves to the Everyman, Cork, June 27-July 2; Watergate, Kilkenny, July 7-9 and the Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire, July 12-30

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