By David Hennessy
“You really felt like you were sitting in the bar there, you were inhaling their smoke. You could tell straight away that the thing was just a rocket, that something magical was happening each night onstage and through this piece of writing,” actor Peter McDonald remembers watching the first ever performance of Conor McPherson’s The Weir.
It was 1997 in the intimate setting of The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs’ temporary home at The Ambassadors Theatre and Downton Abbey star Brendan Coyle was playing the role of landlord Brendan in a cast that also included Jim Norton, Dermot Crowley, Kieran Ahern and Michelle Fairley.
“Brendan Coyle was fantastic, Jim Norton: Amazing. The first time The Weir was performed, there was like 60 people, 70 people, I don’t know exactly, and as intimate as it was, that first production of The Weir was really something.”
Peter was 25 and too young to imagine himself in any of the play’s roles but was bowled over by its theatrical impact: “What I felt was ‘I’d love to be doing a play like that’. It felt like great work and if you get to do something like that as an actor, that’s why you act: To be in something that works that well and is so well written and has such casting opportunities for great actors to come and work with each other so it was inspiring and I was envious of the chemistry that was happening between the cast.”
Peter will reprise his role of Brendan when The Weir can be seen on the West End stage this month after his critically acclaimed run at The Donmar Warehouse last year. He will be joined by the same cast that were directed by Josie Rourke in its first major London revival since 1997: Brian Cox, Ardal O’Hanlon, Risteárd Cooper and Dervla Kirwan.
Peter explained that another run would only have worked with the same cast: “We were all very keen that if it was to go into the West End, that we would all do it if we all agreed to do it. It’s such a delicate piece, if you take one cast member and replace them with somebody else, it could be equally as good an actor but it would just change the balance of the chemistry of what’s going on so we didn’t want to mess with that.”
The play tells the story of what happens in a rural Irish pub over the course of a night when landlord Brendan and his aging patrons are visited by a new and exotic female. The men try to impress her with their ghostly stories but it is Valerie’s story that is most shocking and undoubtedly true.
“It’s just testament to the play that it has gone straight back into the West End where it’s already done a full run on original release so it’s a piece of work that just touches people very deeply. I’ve been in many plays in my life and every now and then you’re in a play where you meet the audience afterwards and you can tell they have been transported somewhere and that’s why we do it.
“When you go to say the next line that you have, that’s when you realise why it’s so brilliantly written, because you go ‘that’s exactly what my character would say at this point’. At all times onstage you’re having a relationship with four other people which is a massive criss-cross of relationships happening which is beautiful to play when it’s so well written.
“The audience really falls in love with the characters and being in the pub. They feel like they’ve had an evening in the pub and at the end of the evening when we leave the pub, it feels like they’re left inside the physical space to contemplate what has just happened, which is great because it really makes you feel like you’ve drawn them into the action rather than them feeling like they’re at a distance looking at it.”
It was also in 1997 that Peter starred in I Went Down with Brendan Gleeson, a film that was also written by McPherson. His many subsequent screen roles include Felicia’s Journey, Paths to Freedom, playing Johnny Giles in The Damned United and Titanic, the TV mini-series. Among his noted previous stage roles are playing Padraic in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, acting opposite Anne-Marie Duff in Owen McCafferty’s Days of Wine and Roses and co-starring with Jonathan Pryce and Aidan Gillen in Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet at the Apollo Theatre in 2007.
“When you’re on screen, ultimately you’re going to be in the hands of an editor. In fact that scene may not even make it into the film, that’s how much power they have in relation to the scene so theatre’s the actor’s medium, especially for a piece like The Weir. The Weir is ultimately one of those pieces where the whole evening is in the actor’s hands and the key, the most important rule when you’re onstage is to keep the ball in the air. You can’t let the dramatic ball land on the ground, you can’t let the audience catch up with you: They have to be watching it unfold.
“Also what’s important about stage is what’s happening between the lines. The air between the characters in the room and the atmosphere is as important, if not more important, than the lines themselves and the reason why theatre will always be special in that way is because the audience is sitting there with the actors. They’re breathing that same air and also, what your audience chooses to look at is not dictated by the editor.
“The ball always has to be in the air for every one of those five characters otherwise the piece will slip down and it will be a really boring play. They need a stage actor to tighten that but make it look like it’s not happening at all. It’s like the swan on the water, it’s so graceful but you don’t want to see the legs doing the work underneath. That’s the trick. The more plays you do, the more you learn that and the more you’re reminded of how to keep the audience’s attention so focused on what’s happening and keep the stakes in the air.”
While Brendan may not tell a story, Peter’s role is an important one: “Brendan is a classic barman in the sense of someone who will serve you drink, have a convivial atmosphere and get the conversation going between people but also listen to people and their troubles. The men in the play all know each other so well but because this woman comes into the bar, it totally cracks open the egg and the normal discourse of the evening and it is up to Brendan to keep the evening on track because it’s his bar and people can’t step out of line. He has to keep a hold of the reigns but at the same time he is very much entranced and intrigued by this woman who comes into his bar. Not many women like her would drop in of an evening and the play is very much about the isolation of these men in this rural setting and Brendan as much as any of them is suffering from that loneliness.”
He is widely considered Ireland’s greatest living playwright and this is not the first time Peter has acted in the work of Conor McPherson. In fact, their relationship goes all the way back to their days in UCD’s drama society and the talent and determination of the budding writer inspired Peter by showing him just what could be achieved: “It was the late eighties/ 1990s in Dublin, there was about 18% unemployment: It was even higher than it was at the height of the crash but what was great about him was he was so convinced that this was what he was going to do. The other thing was that he was just so talented. Being around people like that always helps any actor coming up and convinces you that you should follow this path.”
An inspired actor and a young playwright set up Fly by Night theatre company where they both flexed their theatrical muscles outside of UCD drama society. Peter remembers when a nosy audience member walked straight across the stage in an early performance. “That happened,” he laughs. “We were in the middle of a show and in the middle of a scene between myself and an actor called Kevin Healy, this guy got up and he just walked across what was basically the set in the middle of a scene and through this little door into the area where all of our personal effects were. We were going: ‘Jesus Christ, he’s gone backstage’. Of course, Conor had to follow him and we could hear Conor backstage going ‘what are you doing back here?’ (He says): ‘I Don’t know, just having a look around, ya know?’ So conor had to get him to leave. Very hard to remember your lines and keep the dramatic tension going when that’s happening at the same time… but I guess that’s how you learn.”
Peter himself is an Oscar-nominated writer/director of the short film, Pentecost and his film The Stag that he wrote and stars in is due for release in the early part of 2014. He can also be seen reprising his role as Liam, head of the Moone family, in Sky’s Moone Boy when it returns for a second series in February. Sky have always been confident of Moone Boy’s reception and a third series has already been shot with Chris O’Dowd himself in the director’s chair and this is Peter’s ambition now: To direct a feature film so expect to see something from him in the near future.
In those early days, did Peter have any inkling of the success that would come his playwriting friend, winning an Olivier Award for The Weir? “Yes and no. I mean nobody knows what’s going to happen in theatre, film and showbusiness in general. Great, great writers and actors have struggled for years and have never been recognised or have been recognised quite late but all you can do is base it on your own reaction to the work. He just had a gift of making you focus on a story and invest in the characters and wonder what’s going to happen and also take twists and turns that were in no way formulaic.
“From my point of view, we could be sitting here and I could be saying: ‘You know there was a guy who used to be in UCD with us and he was a great writer, I don’t know why he never made it…’ But he did get recognised and to me it made sense because Conor’s work connected with me, so I didn’t blink an eye lid when he started to get very successful but that’s because his work had already touched me.”
Peter can be seen in The Weir is at Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road from January 16. For more information, go to: www.TheWeirLondon.co.uk.