English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester bring us their production of Conor McPherson's The Weir next week - a shadowy tale which delves into the dark corners of human lives.

Actor Sean Murray, who play Jack in the play, talks to us about his role and its particular challenges, and explains why twenty years on from winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play, The Weir is as popular with audiences as ever ...

What made you keen to join the cast of The Weir?

I had wanted to be in The Weir for twenty years, since I met Conor McPherson, the writer and Ian Rickson, the director for the part of Brendan in the original production at the Royal Court in London. I didn’t get that job, but went to see the play when it transferred to the West End. I loved it then and would have gladly played any of the male parts, but Jack appealed to me in particular. Theres something Peter Pan like about him. The boy that never grew up. I love his bluff and eventual humility.

For people who aren’t familiar with the play, what’s The Weir about?

The Weir takes place over one evening, in a pub in a remote part of Ireland. Four local men have new company in the shape of a young woman from the city who has moved into the area that day. Her presence stirs up old rivalries and elicits the telling of some surprising stories as the characters confront their demons, ghosts and fairies.

What are you most enjoying about playing Jack?

Stepping onto that set alone, knowing that I’m soon going to be joined by the most delightful and supportive company one could ever work with, in a piece that is a joy to deliver every single time. Even with toothache on a rainy Saturday afternoon on a University campus in Exeter.

What particular challenges does this play present to you as an actor?

Now that we’re up and running with the piece and pretty much know what I’m about, I just have to do my level best to make sure that I’m thinking the right thoughts and listening to the others and the music of the piece as though for the first time. No two performances are the same and we’re constantly playing with ways to keep the performance fresh whilst staying true to the text. It’s a delightful challenge to be part of. There are specific physical challenges. I have to drink at least three pints of liquid over the hour and forty minute duration of the play. I am off-stage for only a minute or two during that time, so a trip to the WC is not an option. In spite of years of preparation by drinking more than a couple of pints of beer on a usually daily basis, I often have to suppress the urge to wiggle my legs in the final ten minutes on stage. Along with the liquid, due to the copious amounts that I need to drink in one go, I tend to ingest quite a bit of air. That requires a slightly different type of muscle control and can be distracting. The herbal cigarettes that we ‘re obliged to smoke for health and safety reasons, catch in my throat more than regular tobacco does. Fortunately, there’s always a drink handy to wet my whistle.

The play swiftly established itself as a modern classic and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play: why do you think it’s enjoyed so much success and critical acclaim?

The Weir is easily accessible. It’s themes are universal and you don’t have to be a seasoned theatre-goer in order to be captivated by the piece. It’s delightful to hear a good story well told.

Are there themes in The Weir that you feel will resonate with contemporary audiences?

I think that many of the themes within The Weir will resonate with a contemporary audience. It was only written twenty years ago and most of the themes are timeless and universal: Isolation, loneliness, dwindling communities, lack of close relationships and consequential sexual repression. Jealousy, revenge, bereavement and death. Most of these are present in our lives at some time or other and whilst The Weir doesn’t try to resolve these, they are ever present in the sub-text and should sear through everything that the characters say. The play has other-worldly resonances as well. Supernatural themes that permeate the storytelling and swirl around the evening, like ghosts

Why do you think Conor McPherson is such an admired playwright?

I can only give my opinion as far as The Weir is concerned, since I am unfamiliar with Conor’s work since. I suspect that he is so admired because he seems to me to write with a lyricism that actors delight in accomplishing and that audiences engage with easily, unless they are put off by a bit of colourful language, which is a cultural thing. If the rumors are to be believed, I suspect that Conor’s continued success might be partly due to the fact that he stopped drinking too much after The Weir. I might be wise to do the same.

What do you think your audiences will take away with them after watching The Weir?

After watching The Weir, I hope that the audience will have been moved to laughter, tears and recognition of themselves and others they have loved and loathed. I was. I also wanted to know what the characters would be doing in ten years time.
I think the audience might want a drink, having sat watching us knocking it back for the last hour and a half. Over that drink, or whatever, they might reflect on loneliness, loss and bereavement, or be wondering about the supernatural. I’ve heard various theories and thoughts from audience members over the past few weeks. Are the characters in hell, or some sort of purgatory, stuck with their stories, between life and death? It means different things for different folks, however, those theories aren’t so very far from two of Conor’s notes to us, which were that at the top of the play, every character is staring into an abyss and that the evening is a sort of exorcism for each of them. I also think that the audiences will leave the theatre wanting to come back, soon.


Book now to see The Weir at Lighthouse from Tuesday 7 - Saturday 11 November

Published 3 November 2017