Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Master and a Hack

The Weir, directed by Josie Rourke

The supernatural is alive in the work of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Ghosts appear in Shining City and in his movie Eclipse; in The Seafarer a man plays poker against the devil. But these pieces don’t feel like folk fables, because stylistically McPherson is a realist. In The Weir, which was recently revived in a fine production at London’s Donmar Warehouse (it closed to make room for McPherson’s latest, The Night Alive), ghosts are only spoken of, but by the end of the evening they’re so close you can almost hear them breathing. The play is set in a bar in rural Ireland (County Leitrim, to be exact) where four middle-aged pals, including the proprietor, Brendan (Peter McDonald), entertain a newcomer, Valerie (Dervla Kirwan), who has just moved into a house in the area. She’s attractive, evidently single, more sophisticated than the women they know, and the men fall over themselves trying to impress her – especially the sportiest of them, Finbar (Risteárd Cooper), who owns the local hotel and appears to be the richest man in the town. Somehow the conversation turns to local ghost stories. Jack (Brian Cox) tells the first one, about a knocking spirit that was driven away by a priest’s exhortations; legend has it that the house had been built on a “fairy road.” Only after Jack finishes his tale does it occur to the men (the fourth, shy, awkward Jim, is played by Ardal O’Hanlon) that the haunted house they’ve been describing is the one Valerie has moved into, and they’re ashamed and embarrassed about any discomfort they might have caused her. But she doesn’t seem unnerved, and the stories continue.

The chat among the men, both before Finbar brings Valerie into the bar and even for a short while afterwards, is earthy and commonplace. They exchange neighborhood gossip, discuss the weather, gambling, horse racing, sex. McPherson wants to ground us in the everyday realism of this place so that when the characters begin to relate their encounters with the supernatural, the line between the two worlds will seem blurred, easily crossed. Director Josie Rourke, set designer Tom Scutt and lighting designer Neil Austin work fluidly with the text to create a familiar, intimate environment that feels, however, like a stopgap against the natural intrusions of the coast and the countryside. The title alludes to the system that regulates the power in the area. A weir is a kind of dam whose job is to hold back forces that might otherwise be ferocious and threatening, and in the stories the characters tell each other, contemporary life operates as a similar construct, supposedly sealing us off from a world of spirits that is quite frightening, but from time to time its ineffectualness in doing so becomes clear.

There are four literal ghost stories, and in each one the spectral presence is more imposing than the last, the narrator more closely involved, and the tone correspondingly more emotional. Jack was a young man when the children of the woman who used to own Valerie’s house reported on the fairy knocking; he didn’t hear it himself, but he saw the psychological effects on those who claimed they did. Finbar tells the second (also from his youth), about the ghost of a woman who had been found dead at the bottom of her stairway; he didn’t see her, but he became convinced of her existence and then, back at home, he sensed her presence behind him as so tangible that he was too terrified to turn around. What strikes you in both these tales, as Cox and Cooper convey them, is that the tellers are pragmatic, no-nonsense men whose rational minds are still, all these years later, at war with their experiences. Cooper is especially effective with the turning point in Finbar’s story, when his twenty-something self feels the ghost in the room: you hear in his voice a mixture of horror, undiminished by the passage of time, and incredulity. Jim’s story is more unsettling. It’s about a job he and a friend were hired to do when they were young men, digging a grave in another parish. A stranger appears to them and indicates a different location, as if they were digging in the wrong place, but the spot he points to is the grave of a little girl. After their work is completed Jim and his buddy find out from the priest that they were brought in to dig the grave of a pedophile because the local men refused to do it themselves.

Devla Kirwan as Valerie
The mention of the little girl’s grave links this story to the next one, which is Valerie’s. The specter in her story is her own daughter, who drowned in a swimming accident and whose frightened voice Valerie heard on the phone after her death, begging her mother to fetch her home. As Kirwan tells the story, we feel that Valerie is trying with increasing difficulty (and increasing desperation) to keep it at arm’s length, to prevent it from overtaking her emotionally, but it has such a strong hold on her even now, some years (we don’t know precisely how many) after it occurred, that she has trouble breathing. (The entire ensemble is superb, but Kirwan stands out.) The men don’t know what to do at the end of Valerie’s tale; all they can manage is some vague, clumsy assurances that it couldn’t have been her daughter on the other end of that line. (Jim suggests, hilariously, that there must have been something wrong with the phone.) They’re trying to alleviate her unforgotten anguish, but they’re also trying to convince themselves: as horrible as it is to imagine that a pedophile might still indulge his vices beyond the grave, the thought of the child of this woman lost somewhere in limbo, petrified and calling for her mother, is perhaps worse.

If you don’t know the play – I saw the Broadway production in 1999, with the magnificent Jim Norton, one of McPherson’s favorite actors, as Jack – then you assume that Valerie’s will be the final ghost story, because what could possibly follow it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Jack finishes the play by remembering a girl he loved when he was younger who moved to Dublin and whom he lost through his own bad judgment; she invited him to her wedding and though he went up to the city for the event, he sank into a depression and couldn’t get himself to the celebration. He sat in a pub, drinking, until the bartender, seeing his distress, pressed a sandwich on him that somehow brought him back to life and gave him the strength to attend the wedding of his old sweetheart. This is, we understand, another kind of ghost story – the tale of a dead romance – and McPherson uses it to get at the idea of how the essential things of this world, like a sandwich, can rescue us when we get too close to the other one. (Cox, whose skills as an actor are of course well known, is extremely moving in this section.) Here McPherson’s beautiful play, which began with this earthly existence and then slipped mysteriously into the supernatural, comes full circle.

Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan

Among contemporary Irish dramatic writers, Martin McDonagh’s reputation is even stronger than Conor McPherson’s, but I find his plays inauthentic and shamelessly manipulative. (His movies, too: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, both of which he directed as well.) The Cripple of Inishmaan, which the Michael Grandage Company has produced at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End under Grandage’s direction, is typical. Set on the island of Inishmaan in 1934, it’s about a young man named Billy (Daniel Radcliffe), crippled since birth and considered a write-off by all the locals except for the two women (Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna) who raised him. But he defies the general perception of him by traveling to one of the other Aran Islands to be an extra in Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran and is lured to Hollywood to test for a part in another movie. The characters in McDonagh’s work tend to be cruel, violent, even sadistic, but they’re presented less out of some coherent world view than for the delectation of the audience. Helen (Sarah Greene), whom Billy has a crush on, torments everyone and beats up on her kid brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill), which McDonagh evidently thinks is uproarious. Late in the play a character named Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney), as payment for some imagined offence, batters Billy with a stick of wood. The real batterer is McDonagh, who leads us to believe that Billy is dying of tuberculosis, only to reveal that the monologue we witnessed in his Los Angeles hotel room was a side he was rehearsing for his screen test. Then he tells us that actually Billy does have TB. Then he dangles a false happy ending in front of us – Billy, returned home from the States, seems to be getting somewhere with the mercurial Sarah – and in the last moment reminds us that, even if the cripple of Inishmaan does get laid, he’s still going to die. McDonagh flaunts his dramaturgical skills by whipping us into one emotional state after another. The play itself isn’t about anything, though he seems to think that his portrait of the Irish as not only violent but dishonest and lacking in compassion links him to Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge. I did think of both these classic Irish playwrights while I was watching The Cripple of Inishmaan (Synge’s great, elegiac Riders to the Sea takes place in the Aran Islands), but not in a way that was complimentary to McDonagh. Radcliffe, whose presence in the cast presumably prompted this revival, has demonstrated in the past that he’s a good stage actor (Equus, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but he gives a flat, workaday performance here. Aaron Monaghan’s highly stylized one in the New York production in 2008 at least gave you something to watch.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment