Set in a west of Ireland pub populated by a smattering of regulars, The Weir steps into a very male world of boozy bravado and unspoken bonds that are opened up by the arrival of a female stranger called Valerie. Over the course of one night, as each man tries to outdo each other with supernatural yarns designed to both impress and scare the incomer, everybody's lives are quietly rocked by what eventually unfolds. And that's it. No grand gestures or epic sweeps of dramatic tricks, dance routines or live video feeds, just five people in a pub, talking. Which makes you wander what shook Gaughan up so much when she read it.
“It's got so much humanity to it,” she says on a break from rehearsals. “It's beautiful story-telling, and you can't be tricksy with it. You just need to buy into it. It's just people in the pub telling stories, and it's as simple as that, but it kind of creeps up on you. When I first read it, I got to Valerie's story, and I was just like, what's just happened here. And with this production, that's what I'm trying to evoke, that by the time the audience get there, everything just creeps up on them and takes them by surprise. Apart from everything else, ghost stories are great.”
First seen in 1997, The Weir went on a substantial West End run before transferring to Broadway, and isnow regarded as a modern classic. The play may form part of the canon of a man who on one level might be said to be a macho writer, though compared to other male playwrights of his generation lumped in with the 1990s so-called in-yer-face wave, his world is somewhat contrarily full of vulnerability and superstition. The same year as The Weir premiered, McPherson wrote St Nicholas, a solo piece in which a theatre critic recounted his own brush with the supernatural. In 2006, The Seafarer took things even further in terms of its eerie intimacy, even as it does away with any female presence onstage at all.
“A lot of my work has tended to be female-led,” says Gaughan, who has previously directed Hedda Gabler at the Lyceum and Hecuba at Dundee Rep. “That's never been deliberate, but has just been about the stories that grab me. The thing about Valerie is that she's a stranger. She's not a mother or a lover to any of these characters. She's just brand new information. She makes the night an event.
“Without Valerie, they wouldn't be telling these stories. There's a gorgeous line in the play towards the end, that goes 'It's been a strange little evening for me', and that's about wondering where these stories come from. It's a male world they're all in, but without the female, it wouldn't work. These men wouldn't be in the same place that they are. They would all just be sitting about like barflies, which is what they do every single night. She's not trying to evoke anything either. She's running away from her own problems.”
For The Weir, Gaughan cast Lucianne McEvoy in the pivotal role of Valerie, In Gaughan's words, the Glasgow-based, Dublin-born actress“owns” the part, and in her audition made the casting director cry.
McEvoy's pedigree includes working with directors including Patrick Mason and Max Stafford-Clark at Dublin's Abbey Theatre. In Scotland, she has worked with Theatre Babel and the National Theatre of Scotland, and also appeared in Rufus Norris and Tim Stark's production of Festen at Birmingham Rep. At the Citizens Theatre she was seen in Dominic Hill's revival of The Libertine, and in Grid Iron's Edinburgh International Festival production, Leaving Planet Earth.
For The Weir, the backdrop is one McEvoy recognises only too well.
“It feels like coming home for me in lots of ways,” she says. “The world is very familiar, and the people are very familiar. The nuances of how they are kind to each other are quite subtle, making sure everyone's got a pint the etiquette of a west of Ireland pub. That world is quite particular. With something like this that's an intense melting pot of a play, there are other things to do, but this feels like a very familiar landscape.”
The fact that McEvoy's father lives in the sort of small west of Ireland town that The Weir is set in may have something to do with this, but it is Valerie's presence itself that has captured McEvoy's imagination more.
“She unlocks something for everyone,” says McEvoy. “It's a bit like having a stranger at Christmas dinner. Everyone behaves slightly differently to accommodate that person, so on one level everyone's looking at each other thinking that's not like you, but on the other it's a chance for people to re-present themselves or rediscover who they are, because there's this stranger there who's asking them questions.
“We don't know much about her other than what they learn, which isn't very much, other than that she's there alone. She was once married, and seems to be at an inbetween place in her life, so she's looking for some space. Then she tells this story, and when one person opens up in company, it invites everyone else to.
That's the last thing on her mind when she first goes into the pub, but once people start telling their stories, it has a domino effect, and by the time it gets to her it's almost a compulsion to share it, and it would be strange if she didn't. It feels like the play is of that particular moment on that particular night, and I don't think these people could ever sit together and have such a shared experience in quite the same way again.”
Gaughan hope the same sensation will permeate out to the audience.
“They're witnesses,” she says. “They shouldn't be passive, and I think they'll witness something that's totally unexpected to what they might think they're going into.
“This play's about loneliness and regret, and all these characters have that within them, but they have such generosity of spirit that they wouldn't be able to talk the way they do without it, and that's what makes it such a beautiful play.”
The Weir, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January 15-February 6
The Herald, January 12th 2016