Why is it called The Weir, this quietly magnificent 1997 play by Conor McPherson?
The Weir | Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh | Rating ****
There is a mention of the weir, all right, as the five characters gather in Brendan’s shabby pub in the far west of Ireland. There’s Brendan himself, the quiet barman; there’s Jack and Jim, the two local ageing bachelors. Then there’s Finbar, the slightly flashy local estate agent; and Valerie, the new arrival from Dublin whom Finbar is showing around. And as Valerie looks at the old black-and-white photographs on the wall, she asks about the one of the weir; Finbar says it was built in the 1950s, to control the flow of the local river.
In truth, though, it’s not control but the loss of it, the moments when the calm waters of everyday life suddenly spill over into another, unknowable world, that seems to lie at the heart of McPherson’s play, built around a series of increasingly powerful and chilling ghost stories. It begins with what would be a harmless old local yarn about a “fairy road”, if it wasn’t for the fact that the “road” passes through the very house Valerie has just bought; and reaches a climax an hour or so later in Valerie’s own true-life story, the heart-breaking centrepiece of the play.
And after a brief, supremely poignant coda from Jack, that’s that, just an evening in the pub; yet as they blow in from the rain-drenched darkness outside – beautifully conjured up in Francis O’Connor’s transparent set – McPherson’s characters take us on an unforgettable journey through the chill terror of the unknown that lies beyond the edge of life, and the solace of good company. Amanda Gaughan’s Lyceum production perfectly captures both the extent to which these acts of storytelling amount to real dramatic performances, and the way the play gradually explores all the layers and functions of the ancient ritual of storytelling, from stirring up a bit of mischief, to trying to begin to heal life’s most terrible losses and griefs.
In the role of Valerie, a superb Lucianne McEvoy glows with concentrated pain and beauty; Brian Gleeson, Gary Lydon, Darragh Kelly and Frank McCusker give supporting performances that are close to perfection, conjuring up every minute stress and strain of a decade of momentous change in Ireland. And in the stunned silence at the end of Valerie’s monologue, you could have heard a pin drop; proof at last that most audience noise simply ceases when we spill over that edge into a world of storytelling that is mysterious, and spellbinding, and absolutely necessary.
• Until 6 February