Tag Archives: Conor McPherson

“Shining City” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

A ghost story that isn’t interested in the supernatural? That’s the idea that makes Conor McPherson’s play original. Therapy sessions for John, who thinks he is haunted by his wife, are combined with scenes from the life of his therapist, Ian. But Shining City doesn’t have much time for spooks… or does it?

McPherson highlights how our perceptions shape our lives – not just John’s hallucinations but Ian’s history, too. Whether they appreciate that they are deluded or believe they are taking control is open to debate. These are lives that seem lonely or stuck. The characters are indulged but interesting, and McPherson’s telling of the tale is excellent

Without doubt, McPherson writes great roles. Rory Keenan as Ian is in every scene and is fantastic. And there’s strong support from Brendan Coyle, Curtis-Lee Ashqar and Michelle Fox. 

Might Coyle’s John be funnier? McPherson is famed for his dark wit, even if this play is restrained, but humour isn’t on director Nadia Fall’s agenda. As Coyle recounts “all the silence” in his troubled marriage – behaviour that now makes him guilty – you can appreciate the depth of a skilled portrayal.

The quiet power of Ian anchors the show. A lot of time is spent listening to others talk and an unrushed Keenan becomes fascinating to watch as he suggests the slightest touches of not just boredom, but of someone hiding the fact that they are bored! Balanced with revelations (and questions) about the therapist’s past and future, showing different sides of his character, it’s great stuff. Nonetheless, Fall takes the slow pace too far, which – combined with some lengthy scene changes – dilutes tension too much.

Even if this production is a narrow view of what the text offers, the writing and performances are strong enough to earn it plenty of stars. 

As the characters try to convince themselves that their lives are getting better and their perceptions improving, McPherson wants to be clear – those perceptions are only personal. If John buries his guilt, might Ian, somehow, be about to inherit the ghost? There’s a surprise in store that makes sure you leave the theatre with goosebumps.

Until 23 October 2021

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

"Uncle Vanya" at the Harold Pinter Theatre

For a play with so much unrequited love among its characters, Conor McPherson’s adaptation of Chekhov’s classic is quite the comedy. The production emphasises the humour in the original, adds some knowing laughs at our expectations of Russian gloom and isn’t even shy to try some slapstick. It makes for one of the most entertaining Chekhovs I’ve seen and deserves huge success as a result.

Toby Jones gets the laughs as the long-suffering titular character, in love with Yelena who has married into his extended family. It’s nice to be reminded of what a natural comedian Jones is, even if there are moments when you might want to feel for his hound-dog character a little more.

Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Rosalind Eleazar and Aimee Lou Wood

Yelena, a sympathetic figure with the help of Rosalind Eleazar’s excellent depiction, has to deal with Vanya’s attentions while being caught in a love triangle with her step-daughter Sonya and the local doctor, Astrov. McPherson surprises again with a sweetness about the romances that comes primarily from Aimee Lou Wood’s brilliant portrayal of Sonya’s crush.

Richard Armitage in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Richard Armitage

For both women, scenes with Richard Armitage’s Astrov, while full of sexual tension, contain a pragmatism that takes out some of their sting. It’s an idea that comes into its own at the play’s conclusion. I didn’t quite buy Astrov as a “helpless animal” because of his passion. By the end it seems I am not supposed to; life goes on despite the trials of the human condition.

Behind the humour, Uncle Vanya is all exhaustion and anhedonia – does this ring hollow amongst the laughter? Or has McPherson created a new tonality for us to consider? There’s no doubting the crispness of his writing or his strong vision. Aided by Ian Rickson’s direction, each household member makes a distinct impression and the action is easy to follow – the production is exceptionally clear. The speech is unintimidating: characters even blow raspberries, expletives are used wisely and monologues direct to the audience provide an intimacy that feels natural.

Dearbhla Molloy in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Dearbhla Molloy

As for McPherson’s ideas, quite rightly, he focuses on the women in the play. Along with Eleazar and Wood, there’s superb support from Anna Calder-Marshall and Dearbhla Molloy. Like most of the characters, Vanya is obsessed by his years – he’s reached the grand age of 47 (makes a man think). But McPherson’s show is marked by youthful appeal. Concerns about the forest (made graphic with the Doctor’s hobby of historical map making) ring environmental alarms that feel topical. And the play’s final words go to the next generation. Sonya’s will to struggle on ends the show on an appropriately optimistic note. There may be only one candle as the curtain descends, but there’s plenty of light.

Until 2 May 2020

www.unclevanyaplay.com

Photography by Johan Persson

“The Weir” at Wyndham’s Theatre

With queues for Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus starting crazily early, adding to her string of hits as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, she now has a West End transfer to boast about with The Weir, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last night.

This much admired and awarded play dates from 1997 and sees various ghost stories told by its misfit characters in a small rural pub. Fortifying this tried and tested concept are Conor McPherson’s beautiful writing and mythic undertones: suggesting our longstanding psychological connections to storytelling and the supernatural.

Rourke’s production is spookily precise. Like one of the play’s characters, Finbar, she clearly has “an eye for the gap” – pauses are perfectly measured for both comedy and tragedy and space is created for the captivating stories. The pace is wonderfully controlled, and the banter in between, the majority of which is very funny indeed, fills out the characters, adding further layers to the play.


Ardal O’Hanlon

Each of the roles is interesting and exceptionally well acted. Risteárd Cooper and Peter McDonald give fine performances as a local entrepreneur and the landlord of the pub. Their different ambitions are just one example of a cleverly injected sense of community, covering the petty differences of life in the country and a network of personal histories. Crowd-pleasing Ardal O’Hanlon joins them as Jim, a bashful handyman who still lives with his mother.

Upsetting the group’s equilibrium is Valerie, a new arrival or “blow in”, who soaks up local folklore then reveals her own ghost story. In the role, Dervla Kirwan delivers the most moving moment of the evening, bringing home the pain and loneliness all feel and fight against. But it’s Brian Cox – as the finest storyteller and bar room wit – that you can’t take your eyes off. Playing an ordinary man with a quiet sadness slowly revealed with great skill, Cox heads a high-powered cast that’s sure to really pack them in. And deservedly so.

Until 19 April 2013

Photos by Helen Warner

Written 22 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Veil” at the National Theatre

As the nights draw in, what could be more apt than a ghost story? Conor McPherson’s new play, The Veil, aims to chill and thrill over the winter months at the National Theatre.

Set in early 19th-century Ireland, the local gentry, living in not so genteel poverty, and their staff are haunted by both the past and current events in their politically divided nation. Lady Lambroke looks to her daughter’s marriage as a way to escape debts and the country. Her brother, a clergyman defrocked for his interest in spiritualism, is to escort the girl to England for marriage, but his interest in his niece has more to do with her ‘gift’ for the supernatural.

Fenella Woolgar and Emily Taaffe make a convincing mother and daughter who, despite their snobbishness, gain our sympathy and admiration. Jim Norton plays the Reverend Berkeley (named for his interest in Idealism) in an appropriately intelligent style that’s passionate enough to convince us he believes his ideas, but leaves room for us to laugh as well.

The staff, including the redoubtable Mrs Goulding (the excellent Bríd Brennan), are a source of further drama. They come together on appropriate windy, candle-lit nights, as the ghost stories and séances get under way. McPherson directs these scenes wonderfully. Unfortunately, there isn’t much sense of time or place in The Veil and Rae Smith’s impressively designed set and costumes start to seem rather pointless – it all looks great but it isn’t put to enough use.

If McPherson wanted to achieve more than an entertaining evening of ghost stories it seems he has fallen short. Extra themes are hinted at yet never materialise. But The Veil is satisfying supernatural and is sure to appeal to his fans. The storytelling is as good as ever, his characters as likeable and well realised, and the language wonderfully lyrical.

Until 11 December 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 5 October 2011 for The London Magazine