Theatre

MTC’s production of the supernaturally tinged Irish pub drama The Weir is a slow-burning pleasure.

By Peter Craven.

MTC’s The Weir

Left to right: Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Ian Meadows and Peter Kowitz: the cast of The Weir.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Conor McPherson’s The Weir is a charmer of a play set in a pub, but it is also a play of dark enchantments and enthralments, a play haunted by sorrows that are the correlative of its sequence of ghost stories, which at first seem like a series of shaggy dog stories but are then upstaged by a bleaker sense of presences and absences and dispossessions.

It is performed not flawlessly but splendidly in Sam Strong’s production for the Melbourne Theatre Company. The ensemble of old barflies includes a superb performance by Peter Kowitz and fine ones by everyone else, and everything is capped off by the authenticity and plangency of Nadine Garner as the stranger who is subjected to sagas of strange spectres before revealing one of her own.

Strong directs The Weir with an easy grace and a flawless grasp of its shifts of mood and changes of register. He’s one of nature’s naturalists and it shows here in this rollicking but not unsubtle production of a small beauty of a play. And, yes, it helps that Dale Ferguson’s set and costumes look like the platonic idea of yesterday’s Irish dagginess and easy liveability that can nonetheless – and, as it were, all the more so – allow that chill at the heart.

The story is as geometrical as Sophocles, only simpler. There’s a new woman in the town who hails from Dublin and she’s living in a place, as one must. And a series of blokes – all of them of middle years in an ageing kind of way, where she tilts the other way – decide to give her the benefit of their tongues in the way of ghost stories. At the same time they indicate with plenty of kindness and gentleness of heart that they have a fine appreciation of what it is to have such a gorgeous and inspiriting woman in their particular bit of the west coast of Ireland.

There’s the bravura old bachelor (Kowitz) in his chocolate-brown suit, and there’s the chap who lives with his aged mother (Robert Menzies), who has a studied, somewhat shy manner, and who would always be having a small one in the way of a glass of John Jameson’s. And then there’s the slick real estate agent (Greg Stone), who’s married and in the money, but who remains inward with these fellows he’s known since primary school or before.

The Weir is not Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy – the production of which, at fortyfivedownstairs last year, burnt a hole in the theatre year simply because the sequence with Noni Hazlehurst as the mother in Beauty Queen had an incandescent splendour whatever its incidental roughnesses – let alone the Beckett of All That Fall. But it does have the surging capacity for articulation, and the absolute mastery of surface realism as a portal to something else, which is one hallmark of Irish dramatic writing.

Northrop Frye was not wrong to point out that every major English dramatist between Ben Jonson and Harold Pinter was Irish. And if the Americans have complicated this in the past 70 or so years, it’s worth remembering how the spirit of Eugene O’Neill broods over Tennessee Williams and Miller and Albee.

It’s not that the Irish are hostile to innovation; it’s that their sense of the histrionic tilts them in the direction of the well-made play before they know where they are.

And so it is with The Weir, which is in its quiet way a beautifully shaped play, even though we can see it coming a mile off. We know that the spinechilling stories from the lineal inheritors of the sídhe will top each other in traditional Hibernian raconteur fashion, and we know that the woman from Dublin will top all of them with a different kind of ghost story and it’s likely to be a heartbreaker.

Still, we’re surprised by the web and the weave and the sheer ease with which the set pieces are surrounded by genial oceans of talk full of bite and banter and occasional flashes of emotional reality and snatches of sadness between the jokes and pervasive geniality and grace.

Sam Strong’s ensemble does it like a dream, as if the well of the dark past of the matter of Ireland was something lurking in every Australian actor’s heart.

Peter Kowitz has a wonderful ebullience and windy self-mockery as the most starry of the blatherers, while Robert Menzies as the chap with the old mother and the whiskey weakness is a superb study in ingrown mildness. Menzies captures unmistakably the shyness of someone who has been crippled but not defeated by his ailments and is at ease with his weaknesses.

One of the rather remarkable things about this thoroughly traditional evening at the theatre is that it reverses expectations. Greg Stone as the sparkiest and spivviest of the talkers is exactly adjusted to everybody else (with exactly the right touch of resentment, and glint of reserve, then surrender) and he’s terrific with Menzies, believe it or not, with whom he has sometimes seemed like one half of a too familiar duo.

Somehow the sureness of Strong’s direction allows the delicacy of these rituals of male camaraderie to shine through. The Irish accents sometimes wobble and fall back into Carlton British; but it doesn’t matter, because the curve of the dialogue and the long paragraphs of its dramatic rhythms are so easefully mastered.

Garner as the Dublin stranger is expert at conveying an eagerness to be pleased and a genuine pleasure in the midst of beery friendship, and she also indicates touches of reticence that insinuate her own mystery. It’s a beautifully understated performance and when her aria of revelation comes she performs it with an arresting power of restraint.

The Weir is one of those productions where everything is in place. Ian Meadows – very impressive as the son in Other Desert Cities in 2013 – gives an absolutely idiomatic impression of the guy behind the bar, a young man at ease with his male elders, at home in a tradition but with a spring and a sparkle that is something else. It’s a lovely bit of acting.

All of which is cheerful to report when the theatre is looking troubled at the moment, with a rather lacklustre revival of Pinter’s Betrayal – only Mark Saturno as Robert the husband does anything like penetrate Pinter’s brio and menace – and a production of Antigone at the Malthouse by Adena Jacobs that is much more an original work by that formidable actor and classicist Jane Montgomery Griffiths – who, a bit startlingly, plays Creon – than it is a version of Sophocles’ masterpiece.

The Weir by contrast is Australian theatre playing it safe. But don’t be deceived: this is a much more surefooted production of a traditional and not negligible play than we’re used to. It has a firm command of the overall dramatic rhythm and each of its five performances is first rate. No, it’s not Sophocles or Pinter, nor was it meant to be. It’s not Kip Williams painting all the colours of the rainbow with dramatic minimalism in his production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. But it hums, it moves, it touches something uncanny as well as funny, and that makes it one of the best bits of theatre on show at the moment.

 

Arts Diary

THEATRE The Intergalactic Nemesis: A Live Action Graphic Novel

Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 9-13

COMEDY The State of the Tasmanian Economy

Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 10-12

DESIGN Sydney Contemporary 2015

Carriageworks, Sydney, September 10-13

THEATRE Volpone (or the Fox)

Arts Centre, Dunston Playhouse, Adelaide, until September 12

THEATRE The Great Gatsby

Independent Theatre, Adelaide, until September 12

Last days

THEATRE Strictly Ballroom the Musical

QPAC Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, until September 9

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Lost drinks". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.