“There’s a danger of being too respectful to the story,” says playwright Conor McPherson. “For something to live, it needs energy, or else it can end up being set in stone, and end up pretty soulless.”
McPherson is talking about The Weir, the Dublin born writer’s Olivier award winning break-out play that first appeared at the Royal Court in 1997, before transferring to both the West End and Broadway. As with much of his work in the twenty-one years since the play’s debut, story-telling is at the heart of The Weir. Set in an isolated rural pub which gives the play its title, three local men attempt to impress a young woman who’s just moved into the area from the city by telling an increasingly fantastical set of supernatural-tinged tales. When the woman tells her story, she upstages the lot, and the bravado and banter that powered the men’s conversation takes a more redemptive tone.
As with the stories in the play, McPherson doesn’t mind a spot of embellishment to give it colour, hence his remarks about the dangers of being too respectful regarding how his yarn is spun onstage. He was specifically referring to conversations he had with director Adele Thomas in the run up to her touring revival of the play, which arrives at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh tonight in a co-production by English Touring Theatre and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester.
“I encouraged Adele to allow the play to be funny,” says McPherson, “and to allow the actors to really dig into it so they’re given free rein and allowed to get stuck in and throw it about the place. I talked to her as well about other productions I’ve seen over the years that have taken a slightly different approach. It’s funny, because The Weir is a play I’ve never directed, but I like lively productions, where actors are always encouraged to do something. I suppose I don’t want the play to be too exposed. I always prefer to hide the action with other things, but sometimes, because it’s been around so long, I think people can be afraid of doing anything to it, whereas I’d be the opposite. I’d be grateful for any help I could get.”
McPherson was still only in his mid-20s when he wrote The Weir. By that time, he had been instrumental in setting up the Fly by Night Theatre Company in 1992 with fellow students at University College Dublin. The company produced several of his early plays, including Rum and Vodka and This Lime Tree Bower. McPherson had originally been approached by the Royal Court with a view to producing the latter play, but when the Bush Theatre said he could remount his own production with them, he wrote The Weir instead. This was in a busy year that also saw him pen his supernatural monologue, St Nicholas.
“The Royal Court were going through a rebuild, and had to move into the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End,” McPherson remembers, “and they split it into two spaces with The Weir going into the smallest. It was supposed to be on for a few weeks, but the reviews came in so strong that the run was extended, and it ended up doing ten weeks. Then it eventually moved to the Duke of York’s, where it felt like everybody wanted to see it, and it stayed there for about two years. For some reason there was a real hunger for that story, but it was all very organic how it turned out.
“I think a lot of the play probably came from my grand-dad. I used to visit him in this really remote part of Ireland, and because I was from the city, it all felt so different. But I wrote the play quite quick. I was very young when I wrote it, and at that age you just want to get it on somewhere. You don’t really worry about anything else. There wasn’t a whole lot of planning and reflection involved.”
As demand grew for McPherson’s play during its eight month Broadway run, retaining the intimacy of the piece was a challenge.
“It’s quite a good work-out for actors,” says McPherson. “Because everyone’s on the stage throughout, they have to bring all their craft into something naturalistic, and actors enjoy that, especially as it’s set in real time. You can watch it go on and on and on, and I think there’s something very revealing about that.
“When we first did the show in this 50-seat thing, it really felt like you were doing it in the bar, and that the audience were in there with them, but by the time we got to Broadway, it was playing in this 1,000 seat venue, so we’d gone to the other end of the spectrum. It was pretty much the same cast as the one we’d started with, and watching the actors deal with that as they went, managing to fill the space, but still keep the intimacy was fascinating, and there was something very seductive about all that.”
As far as The Weir’s after-hours eeriness goes, for McPherson, at least, it represents something far more ordinary than you might expect.
“I think that’s possibly to do with something about the way the supernatural impacts on everyday life as opposed to being a fantasy kind of thing. The supernatural manages to embody all our fears of life and death, and that comes across through stories, which is how most of us experience the supernatural, second-hand.”
McPherson’s ongoing fascination with the supernatural has filtered through to later plays, including Shining City and The Seafarer, the latter of which was seen in a new production in Perth during 2013.
“I’ve always been interested in the supernatural since I was a little kid,” he says. “I think it’s something to do with how we look at the mysteries of life. We’re born into a world we don’t know much about, and we leave not knowing much more. We’re all in the same boat in terms of what we’re surrounded by in the picture frame of all our lives, and if you can create a story that can fit all that into it, then people like it. It’s like a secular version of going to mass, if you like, and you’re getting a story that taps into a very primal need for that sort of thing.”
Most recently, McPherson has been working on Girl from the North Country, a play with music that weaves nineteen songs by Bob Dylan through a story set during the American Depression of the 1930s.
“It’s been brilliant doing it,” McPherson says of the play, which opened at the Old Vic prior to its current West End run. “It really pushes the boundaries of what a play can be, and having all these Bob Dylan songs to pay with is just a joy. Because it’s set in the 1930s, we’ve been able to strip the songs back to their bare essence, and they sound really beautiful.”
Whether Girl from the North Country has as many lives as The Weir remains to be seen, but McPherson is happy that at least one ghost he’s conjured up keeps haunting theatres.
“It's just brilliant that 21 years later people still want to put on The Weir and that actors still want to be in it,” he says. “I think it’s a very warm play, and it’s quite a funny play as well, and you don’t expect that. In the face of the big questions of life that we all have to face alone, the play is saying we can all understand that about each other, and there’s something quite comforting about that, I think.”
The Weir, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, February 20-24.