Playwright Conor McPherson on why The Weir is still special after 20 years

Pat Ryan, Janet Moran and Garett Keogh in The Weir by Conor McPherson. Picture: Darragh Kane

Twenty years after his classic play pushed him into the limelight, Conor McPherson is doing his best not to let the ageing process diminish his spark, writes Padraic Killeen

ALMOST two decades have passed since Conor McPherson’s play The Weir premiered in London, picking up a slew of awards and projecting the Dublin playwright into the international limelight. In the years since, McPherson has carved out a hugely distinguished career, producing further gems (Port Authority, The Seafarer) for the stage, and enjoying success in film and television, too. Yet there remains something special about The Weir.

Set in a small Leitrim pub in which the five people gathered within recount a range of ghost stories, it is the McPherson play par excellence — a tidy little masterpiece that perfectly distils the writer’s obsession both with the supernatural and with the spiritual elements of our daily existence while showcasing, too, his gift for creating characters drenched in a complex humanity. A revival of the play, produced by splendid Irish company Decadent, is currently touring the country.

“One of the things I think people like about the play is the sense of place and atmosphere,” says McPherson. “It’s like eavesdropping on this bar for an evening.”

“I often think that for a play to really work, and for people to love it, it has to be like a little snowglobe — where you can look into it and it’s a perfectly contained world that has its own logic. And The Weir has that. It’s a complete world.”

Of course, at the core of this world there resides the Irish tradition of the ghost story, a tradition that McPherson was exposed to as a child when visiting his grandfather’s house in Leitrim. “As a kid from Dublin it was very different and it really got under my skin,” he recalls.

Is that where his abiding interest in the eerie and supernatural originates?

“It may be, but to be honest I was interested in that stuff when I was even younger than that,” he says. “From when I was 8 or 9, I definitely had a huge interest in ghosts and vampires and zombies and all that. It just really floated my boat. If I wanted to be complimentary to myself, I could say that maybe it was a nascent search for the beyond. But, maybe, too, it was just a lot of fun. I don’t know. I was just always drawn to it.”

In tapping into the Irish ghost story tradition, The Weir taps into something broader still, suggests McPherson, a metaphysical worldview that has been passed on through the generations.

“In Irish heritage, in folklore and in stories of the faeries, I think there is something going on that’s deeper than just stories and yarns,” he says. “I think it expresses something about the way that Irish people have viewed the world, that’s been passed on to us — the way Irish people have understood nature. Those religious beliefs — which would be called ‘pagan’ beliefs now – personified the dark and the lighter sides of nature, and of death, and all of that. So, in stories of the banshee and all that kind of stuff we’re really hearing the echo of an old religion. I think that’s probably why it’s so deep in our bones.”

The arrival of Catholicism in Ireland didn’t replace but merely fused with this older perspective, McPherson suggests. As such, a worldview informed by the supernatural, the unknown, and the uncanny persisted.

“And I think that’s probably quite an intelligent worldview,” he says. “It acknowledges mystery. It acknowledges that we don’t know a huge amount about what’s around us. We just have our five senses and we do the best we can. Beyond that, it’s all a big mystery. And I think you’d be stupid really not to acknowledge that we live within a mystery and we die within a mystery. And there’s something respectful about that worldview. It feels correct.”

McPherson had a close encounter with his own mortality in 2001 when a burst pancreas left him in intensive care. For a man who was already writing about ghosts and all sorts of revenants before this event – and who has continued to do so in the years since – you’d presume it must have carried a strange resonance for him, but McPherson views it all very phlegmatically.

“Real personal experience — if you can rationally, consciously process it — it’s probably not hugely resonant and interesting,” he says. “I’d be much more interested in what’s unconscious than what’s conscious. So when I was sick that time I was just very pleased to get better and glad to be alive and moving on. It was just: ‘Off you go’. It was a very profound time, there’s no doubt about it, but it was also a very positive time, and that’s really how I view it. I don’t view it as ‘Wow. I was nearly dead.’ I view it as ‘Wow. I was lucky not to die.’ I kind of look at it in that boring way.”

In fact, this inclination to matter-of-fact reality, despite the concern with all the more mysterious elements informing our existence, is key to McPherson’s success as a writer. For all their supernatural shadings, McPherson’s plays usually feature naturalistic characters, and very often — as it is in The Weir — the most haunting thing a character will experience is not a spook or a phantom but rather a poignant suspicion that their own life may have slipped away on them.

McPherson is a man who has grasped his own opportunities. In recent years, he has underlined his place in modern Irish drama with yet another Broadway and West End hit, The Night Alive, while also branching off into television, adapting the Benjamin Black novels for RTE’s hit series Quirke. Like all acclaimed writers, the works upon which he staked his claim – The Weir perhaps more than the rest – ghost alongside all new projects. But, typically, McPherson is pragmatic about the difference between writing as a young man and writing as a seasoned veteran.

“You just have to accept that — unless you’re Shakespeare — very few playwrights write their best work in the second part of their lives,” he says. “Usually all of the famous plays are written by guys in their 20s and 30s. And there’s a reason for that. Because when you don’t know your arse from your elbow you’re just splurging it out there. The older you are and the more you’re going, ‘Yes, I’ve learned a couple of things about life,’ the more you’re a boring old fart. You’ve got to somehow hold on to that sense of reality about it. You can’t give up. You’ve got to try and keep your ignorance alive. That’s what it is, actually — not to feel like you’re learning as you go.”

The Weir runs at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, until Saturday; Everyman Cork, June 27-July 2; Watergate Theatre Kilkenny, July 7- 9; and Pavilion Theatre Dún Laoghaire, July 12-30


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