It was only supposed to run for three or four weeks in a very small theatre,” says Conor McPherson, recalling the 1997 debut of his breakthrough play The Weir. In fact, it ran and ran, transferring from London’s Royal Court Upstairs to the West End and to Broadway, touring substantially and picking up numerous awards on the way. It made McPherson’s name as one of Ireland’s leading contemporary playwrights. Now it returns in a new revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse, together with the premiere of McPherson’s new play The Night Alive.
Sitting in a snug office, as the snow of what passes for early spring in London swirls outside, I tell McPherson, now 41, that I can still vividly remember the chilling impact The Weir had on me all those years ago. A spellbinding piece, it is set in a remote country pub in Ireland, where the local men gather to chew the fat. The arrival of a young woman – and copious amounts of liquor – turns them loquacious, and they start to tell ghost stories, each trying to outdo the other. Then she tells a ghost story that sends a cold sweat down the back of your neck. It’s a terrifying play about loss, guaranteed to send you out ready to clutch your loved ones a little closer. But despite its haunting subject, it has a redemptive streak.
“It’s about as dark as a play can be, and yet somehow manages to pull the nose of the plane up,” agrees McPherson. “And I guess that’s why it’s been so successful.”
The play buttonholes your attention through the stories and then deftly moves into much subtler territory, raising questions about what it means to be haunted, and why the supernatural is so fascinating. It celebrates the healing power of storytelling: the cathartic voicing of their fears draws the characters together, says McPherson. “Nothing can be the same after this night, it just can’t be – for anybody. And they really have to hear each other for that to happen.”
The spectre of the supernatural stalks much of McPherson’s work. One play, Shining City (2004), features a character who is terrified of seeing the ghost of his late wife (writing that one, McPherson admits, he actually scared himself); in The Seafarer (2006), the devil pitches up for a game of poker; in St Nicholas (1997), a theatre critic has a close encounter with vampires. His 2011 work The Veil involved transcendental philosophy and a possibly haunted house.
So why does the metaphysical have such a hold on him? Studying philosophy at University College Dublin might have played a part, he says, as might growing up in a Catholic country: “the sense that all of this is merely the waiting room to the main event”. But, he suggests, the fascination with the unknown runs deep with most of us, and seems pretty logical.
“I suppose it is getting into the very crux of what it means to be alive and conscious,” he says. “Is there any meaning to that? And then the feeling of wanting not to be alone: is there any meaning to that? I’ve always had a wonder of that feeling of being so close to the unknown. And the only way to really express that is to take people to the very edge of all our lovely little illusions that everything somehow makes sense.
“Theatre is a great place [to do that], because it has its roots in religious ceremonies ... We’re all sat together, kind of contemplating the story on the altar: there’s something about that that takes humans deeper into themselves. So when you present a very naturalistic play that then opens out into something inexplicable, it’s precisely what the theatre is inviting you to do.”
It’s not just phantoms that haunt McPherson’s work: there are plenty of spirits of the bottled variety too. Big drinkers feature in many of his plays. An early monologue, Rum and Vodka (1992), is a no-holds-barred confession from a binge-drinker on a wildly destructive spree. In Dublin Carol (2000), a man is trying to hide from the wreckage that his heavy drinking has caused. You’ll find wit and warm comedy in his plays but also regret, guilt and many lost and lonely souls – particularly men.
McPherson has been candid about his own fight with alcohol: as a young man he ended up hospitalised with pancreatitis and hasn’t touched a drink now for over a decade. Having seen the problem from both the inside and the outside, he feels it is endemic.
“I really regret that image of Ireland. It’s terrible that we trade on it. It’s an industry that brings a lot of misery ... I think Ireland has been an alcoholic society. It’s been very hard for Irish governments to accept it – it’s sort of, if we lose that, we’re losing our identity.
“There’s something in the Irish psyche which is very self-destructive, full of self-doubt,” he adds. “We get the reputation for being jolly and for the craic. But that is somehow rooted in something darker. If you look at it, we’re a postcolonial society; we were then colonised again in a way by the church ... We’re a young republic, a young democracy, and yet a very old culture.
“So it seems like we should know who we are – and yet there’s an awful lot of conflict and self-doubt and people trying to figure it out. And in the last 20 years we’ve been on a mad rollercoaster ride. That’s sort of who we are. A lot of Irish plays reflect on that.”
His new play The Night Alive deals with troubled pasts and new beginnings, but through personal drama. It’s a chamber piece about a middle-aged man (played by Ciarán Hinds in McPherson’s own production) living in a bedsit, whose life changes when he helps a young woman. There’s damage here, but hope too. It’s surely that candour about the puzzling, ridiculous, sometimes desperate business of being alive that makes his plays connect with audiences.
“I remember when we were rehearsing Dublin Carol in New York,” he recalls. “A friend came to visit and I said, ‘I can’t imagine who’s going to be interested in this.’ And he said, ‘This [character] is a man who is basically saying “I can’t live here!” and everyone has felt like that at some point. That’s enough.’
“Sometimes you can start with something like that and then roll deep, deep things through there and people get it. Without ever saying it. You don’t want anybody making a speech about what the play’s about: the meaning of a play is always in the gaps. It’s a bit like music. Once you have somebody on stage telling you what a play is about, the play’s dead.”
‘The Weir’ runs to June 8, ‘The Night Alive’ runs June 13-July 27, Donmar Warehouse, London www.donmarwarehouse.com