By Joseph Hurley
Alone among the five characters of Conor McPherson’s hit play, "The Weir," Brendan, the owner and operator of the country pub in which the tale takes place, has no tale to tell, no monologue to deliver. Each of the others has an extended story to relate to the spellbound audiences filling the Walter Kerr Theatre, where the play opened on April 1, and one of them has two turns at bat.
Brendan Coyle, however, the Dublin-based actor who shares a first name with the publican character he plays, doesn’t feel shortchanged in the least.
"If I had a story to tell, I don’t think I’d be telling it under those circumstances," he said recently between the matinee and evening performances.
The "circumstances" to which Coyle refers are, on the face of it, ordinary in the extreme, but with one galvanic difference. Four rather ordinary men, residents of a rural area that the playwright has rather coyly specified as "Northwest Leitrim or Sligo," gather in the dreary establishment run by Brendan, just as they obviously do every night of their lives, except that on this particular night, there is a distinct difference.
The fourth fellow to arrive, Finbar, the worldliest of the quartet, and apparently the only married man among them, has brought a stranger along, a comely young woman from Dublin, Valerie, who has just moved into the area and to whom he, being a real estate agent, has rented an aged dwelling.
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If "The Weir" were submitted to a word count, Brendan Coyle would almost certainly learn that he speaks vastly less often than anyone else on stage.
Yet it was Brendan’s Brendan that won the coveted Laurence Olivier Award for the Best Supporting Performance in London this past season, just as now, with "The Weir" having transferred intact to New York, one of the first elements of the production most people talk about as they leave the theater seems to be the actor and his contribution to the event.
For one thing, the 35-year-old actor’s keenly intelligent, slightly asymmetrically handsome face is an eminently watchable object, whether it’s in motion or at rest, but Coyle’s onstage magnetism has everything to do with the precise way he inhabits the sad little rural bar over which he presides.
At one moment, rather early in the play, the barman serves a drink, then lights a patron’s cigarette, collects a few coins from the counter top and deposits them in the cash drawer at the other end of the bar, all in one fluid, elliptical movement that communicates, wordlessly, just about everything there is to know about the character in terms of the little world he inhabits.
It’s over in an instant, but it resonates as the sort of gesture really good actors can sometimes achieve when they have a truly solid grasp, consciously and subconsciously, of the characters they are inhabiting.
"I developed a very, very thorough inner life and inner story for Brendan," he said, "and I think the fact that he doesn’t tell a story says a lot about him, and to a certain extent the play becomes his story. He’s a bit of a mystery and I like that."
Coyle has been involved in "The Weir" since May of 1997, when rehearsals began for the first time. "This is kind of the fifth incarnation," he said. "We’ve had breaks in between, in which we’ve been able to do different things, but for the three of us who have been there from the very beginning and have come back each time, that’s how long it’s been. I think we’ve done about 400 performances by now." Then he added, with a smile, "That’s a lot of ‘Weir.’ "
When Coyle refers to "the three of us," he means Jim Norton, who plays Jack, the oldest of McPherson’s characters, and Kieran Ahern, whose role is that of the quiet, inhibited man who lives with his ailing mother.
Coyle has played "The Weir," prior to New York, in Dublin, Brussels, Toronto and, of course, London.
Initially, he was offered the part of Finbar, the businessman who, having rented her a house, inserts the young woman into the play’s rural community and starts the plot spinning.
"I’d read the play," he said, "and I’d attached myself to Brendan, because I thought that would be the role I’d be offered."
When, in the end, the part of the bartender became Coyle’s, he realized that it brought with it complications he hadn’t anticipated. "What I used to do to compensate for periods in the rehearsal process where three or four days would go by without my having a line to speak," he said, "was to work on the subtext. It was very frustrating, so I gave myself rehearsals of my own, to remind myself that this guy had a life and that he owned the bar. I worked on the money and the glasses, and moving the chairs and the tables, so that I’d have a solid sense of the place and the man. I had to give him a physical life in that bar."
Coyle became the barman because, when he was offered the role of Finbar, he simply told the producers that he’d prefer to be Brendan. "I suspect they thought I wouldn’t want the essentially silent part," he said. "I’m not really sure."
The actor was born in England to parents who had moved there from County Tyrone, but he’s an Irish citizen and makes his home in Dublin. The two occasions on which New York audiences might have seen Brendan Coyle before "The Weir" are both films, first Paddy Breathnach’s "Ailsa," and, very recently, John Boorman’s "The General," the story of the Irish criminal Martin Cahill, whom Brendan Gleeson played in the movie.
"Ailsa," which won the Best First Feature award at the 1995 San Sebastian Film Festival, was drawn from a story by Joseph O’Connor, brother of the singer Sinead O’Connor and a college chum of the director.
It also provided Coyle with a strong and demanding leading role, which the actor carried off brilliantly.
To date, "Ailsa" has been seen in New York at a series of Irish films programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and shown a few times at the Walter Reade Theatre.
"Ailsa" started out as a three-page story by the young writer. "It was originally supposed to be a one-hour film for television and the story was very thin on the ground," Coyle said. "It became a feature in the making, and there was a lot of rewriting as we went along. We really didn’t know what we were doing."
Coyle’s companion, Emer Reynolds, edited "Ailsa," and then was the editor on "I Went Down," last year’s comedy directed by Breathnach from a script by Conor McPherson.
At the moment, the 27-year-old playwright is directing his first film, "Salt Water," which McPherson has adapted into a screenplay from one of his earlier plays, "The Lime Tree Bower." Work on the film kept Reynolds, whom Coyle met while she was cutting "Ailsa," from coming to New York for the opening last month of "The Weir."
Coyle might easily have remained in the British Midlands, in the steel-producing town of Corby, in Northhamptonshire, had it not been for the fact that his cousin Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy had co-founded an acting academy in a small theater in Dublin.
"It had been established as the Focus Theatre since about the late 1960s," Coyle said, "so when the time came, I went there to train. That was in 1981, and in 1983, I got a scholarship to go to the Mountview Theatre School in England, and that was it."
Between various phases of Coyle’s ongoing development with "The Weir," the actor appeared in a yet-to-be-released film starring Stephen Rea call "I Could Read the Sky."
"I loved the script," he said. "And apparently the film is very, very beautiful. It’s a real art house film."
"I Could Read the Sky," as the film is called at the moment, concerns an elderly man facing death.
"I play a younger friend of his and there’s a lot of talking directly to the camera," Coyle said. "I didn’t have a very large part, just about five days spread over the whole shooting schedule, but I think it may work out pretty well."
"The Weir" is the first time Brendan Coyle has devoted so much time to a single play, and, much as he admires McPherson and the play, he’d be extremely unlikely ever to take on a venture that could stretch into a two-year situation.
"I knew this play would eventually come to Broadway," he said, "and I wanted to make my New York debut in this part, but staying with the play has cost me a certain number of other parts. It’s been a wonderful time, overall, but I wouldn’t do it again. I’ve let a lot of other things go by in order to get here, and be here in "The Weir."