Conor McPherson's The Weir established itself as an instant classic when it opened at the Royal Court in 1997.
It's the cock-eyed propensity of some instant classics, though, to fail to stand the test of time. But The Weir seems to grow richer with age, as is demonstrated now by Josie Rourke's beautifully acted revival at the Donmar Warehouse – a production which is glowing infused with McPherson's creative magnanimity. He's a dramatist who even managed to achieve a kind of serrated empathy for protagonist in the outrageously funny monologue about a scapegrace Dublin theatre critic, St Nicholas – a subject that tends to reduce most writers to punitive small-mindedness.
Brian Cox was a wonder in this latter role as he was the recovering alcoholic undertaker in Dublin Carol. He now brings all his honed, instinctive feel for McPherson's world and characters to his magnificent portrayal here of Jack, the elderly bachelor small-time garage owner who is one of the regulars of the lonely Sligo pub during its non-tourist months. “You're going to have a peace and quiet overload,” he warns Valerie, the young Dublin woman who has rented a house nearby.
This is the kind of pub where they are not used to female custom. Possibly en route to becoming an on-the-shelf grumpy old sod himself, Peter McDonald's excellent Brendan, the young proprietor, holds a half pint glass of white wine to the light as though waiting for it form a head. As well as to well-meaning but hard-to-swallow liquid refreshment, Valerie is treated to escalatingly spooky stories derived from the locality by the men who compete for her attention. These include Ardal O'Hanlon's kindly, dim Jim (whose mother has “been fading fast for ages”) and Risteard Cooper's flash, linen-suited Finbar who, annoyingly for the others, is parading Valerie round, though he's the only one married.
Dervla Kirwan superbly captures both Valerie's nervous desire to be convivial and the white-faced indescribable grief that makes her eventual story of loss (and of agonisingly dubious overlap with spirit world) the devastating climax. But the play does not stop there; nor, though astringent, does it cast a cold eye on the stunted lives of the men. Having excelled at showing how Jack plays up his reputation for being a jokey, rather bombastic card, Cox takes your breath away with an exacting final story of how he let the love of his life slip away into marriage with another man. No ghosts this time, but truly haunting nonetheless – as this deeply humane play.
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