Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Mythical Haven

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Mythical Haven

Article excerpt

The Weir Donmar, until 8 June The Tempest Shakespeare's Globe, until 4 July The Weir is the ultimate hit-from-nowhere.

It was written in 1997 by the 26-year-old Conor McPherson. It opened at the Royal Court Upstairs and glided over to Broadway and then toured America. The script defies every rule of theatrical physics. It's wordy and static, it's entirely devoid of action or spectacle, and the atmosphere is mired in gloom.

Four morose drinkers, stuck in a pub in the west of Ireland, try to impress a pretty incomer from Dublin by telling her ghost stories. Nothing else happens. The faint stirring of a romance between the Dublin girl and the handsome deadbeat behind the bar provides a tiny note of optimism at the end.

And yet McPherson is a miracle-worker.

As the clock ticks, as the beer flows, as the garrulous bumpkins natter away, a magical transformation takes place, and one's indifference is converted into fascinated involvement. The pub is a mythical haven at the end of the rainbow; it's the seaside resort you left in adolescence; it's the small town you'll return to when your days are done; it has the dependable welcoming deadness of every rural backwater; and its emotional paralysis is both its curse and its allure.

There are great performances in this understated, beautifully judged production.

Ardal O'Hanlon's favourite routine as an idiot-savant serves him well in the role of Jim, the taciturn bachelor who worships his ailing mum. Peter McDonald, a brooding, closedoff actor, finds the right note of dourness for Brendan, the stoical barman who tends his post like a war hero in a foxhole. Risteard Cooper is marvellously skilful as the dapper and calculating Finbar, a local boy made good, whose true intentions towards Dervla Kirwan's Valerie are drawn with brilliant uncertainty. And best of all is Brian Cox, a lone Scot in an all-Irish cast, whose accent is as thick as double cream left out in the sun. With his ample belly, his chewed-up hair and his scribbled black beard, Cox delivers a magnificent performance as Jack, the cuddly ogre who missed out on all life's cuddles.

Cox varies the melancholy with unexpected flashes of aggressive comedy or farcical passion. At times he seems like a startled grizzly bear eating a flip-flop instead of a salmon.

Josie Rourke, who directs this show immaculately, has had a difficult time since assuming command at the Donmar. Critics have refrained from making direct comparisons with her predecessor, Michael Grandage, but I doubt if audiences have been so coy. …

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