Tuesday 23 January 2018

Theatre: Quiet truth that is spookier than fiction

* The Weir, Gaiety Theatre Dublin
* Jericho, Bewley's Theatre Dublin

Propping up the bar: Gary Lydon, Frankie McCafferty, Patrick Ryan and Janet Moran in 'The Weir' by Conor McPherson at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Photo: Darragh Kane
Propping up the bar: Gary Lydon, Frankie McCafferty, Patrick Ryan and Janet Moran in 'The Weir' by Conor McPherson at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Photo: Darragh Kane

Emer O'Kelly

To lose a child is an unimaginable grievousness. For a parent who must confront and live through that grief, life itself may become a kind of ghost story, and this is Conor McPherson's contention in his 1997 play The Weir, currently at the Gaiety in Dublin, in a production being toured round Ireland in co-production by Decadent and Verdant.

In 1997 we were supposedly riding high fiscally. That was later proved to be ephemeral, but at the time, McPherson had a different view of Irish society.

He probed the crust of manhood until the scabs peeled off, displaying livid and painful flesh. And if the small group of men who frequent the rural north-west pub on a dark roadside have no reason to dread the collapse of their financial worlds, however modest, all of them dread the darkness that must be faced each night as they leave, all in their different ways.

Jack (Gary Lydon), the oldest of them, is a kind of paterfamilias, despite his single status. And it is only when he is faced with a tragedy greater than his own that he can break down and tell the story of a love lost through timidity.

Finbar (Garret Keogh) is bluff, the gombeen man of their little kingdom, the only married man among them, and therefore a less frequent visitor to the pub. But an opportunity to show off his (innocent) pulling power cannot be resisted when a lonely woman moves into the neighbourhood and he offers to show her around, including introducing her to the pub.

Jim (Frankie McCafferty) is the most overtly needy, depending on Jack for his odd-job livelihood, and with no seeming purpose in life other than to care for his elderly mother, while Brendan the bar-owner (Patrick Ryan) is of them, but never with them as he pours the drinks and each night clears the small, pathetic detritus of their sociability.

But when Valerie (Janet Moran) arrives, they be-stir themselves to impress her, each telling a ghost story in which they supposedly played a role.

Their pookas are a mysterious presence knocking on a door and windows; a woman standing motionless on a stairs, and most horrifyingly, a dead man tricking a gravedigger into opening a grave for him so he can molest its occupant, a small child.

But then Valerie, runner-in and woman, tells her story. She has reason to be haunted: by an endless, tormented longing for her five-year-old daughter, drowned at the local swimming pool on a school outing.

And as they all leave, and the lights are dimmed, the men's loneliness and isolation is compounded by their dim understanding of such incomprehensible pain. Or is it?

McPherson never pretends he knows - it's what makes him such a powerful playwright, however playful he becomes.

The entire cast is impressive, (with Moran and Keogh particularly so) under Andrew Flynn's direction, in a set by Owen MacCarthaigh.

It's probably a generational thing, but Jericho left me both bewildered and entirely cold. It's played by Maeve O'Mahony and directed by Claire O'Reilly, who both devised it with Breffni Holahan and Dylan Coburn Gray; maybe the proliferation of authorship was the reason there was more sense of Babel than Jericho.

The audience at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Dublin, mind you, seemed to love it, howling with laughter from the first.

Although what there is to laugh at in a woman with an impressively toned body going through an energetic work-out, I couldn't quite work out, any more than I could work out why she was shouting through a microphone held too close to her mouth.

Most of the piece comprises the woman eavesdropping on conversations between unseen people (the voices of Catherine Russell, John Doran, Emer Casey, Jack Toner and Deirdre Van Wolvelaere) having hysterical non-conversations mainly comprised of "like, you know, I mean" repeated endlessly because nobody listens in our world of narcissistic navel-gazing.

The visible character links all of this by complaining about how unreal the world is and talks about wrestling and journalism, which seem alternately to dominate her thinking.

All in all, a play which is narcissistic and navel-gazing, but which seems (I think) to purport to condemn narcissistic navel-gazing, is a bit of a Catch-22.

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