To say that playwright Conor McPherson is fascinated by the supernatural is something of an understatement. He's best known for his 1997 play The Weir, whose characters narrate a string of spooky stories featuring fairies, a ouija board and a mother haunted by her dead child. Before that he taunted reviewers with St Nicholas, about a debauched theatre critic who falls under the spell of vampires. No less a creature than the devil stalked the stage in his last play in London, 2006's The Seafarer. Since then he has made a film, The Eclipse, in which a widower who fears he's seeing ghosts falls in love with a writer of – you guessed it – ghost stories.
His latest play, The Veil, which he is directing at the National Theatre, pulses with paranormal activity: one character hears disembodied voices, another talks dreamily of meeting “a man who had mirrors where his eyes should be”, and a third unleashes chaos by conducting a séance. So far, so McPherson – except in most other respects, The Veil is unlike anything he has written before. For a start, it has five female characters, which is practically more than you'll find in the rest of his work for the stage put together. Plus it's a period piece, set in 1822, opening very precisely on the evening of Wednesday May 15 and ending in the afternoon on Friday 7 June.
An internet search on those dates doesn't bring up much information – which is why McPherson chose them. “I'm not a historical playwright, so I had stick it in somewhere, and I could get in there without any baggage,” he says, apologetically. “Also, it's just before photography, so we sort of know what it looks like, but not exactly. And you can argue with someone about what happened 100 years ago, but 200 years ago?”
It wasn't just canniness motivating this decision: it was a lack of confidence. When I last met McPherson, five years ago, he likened himself to a “nuclear reactor of anxiety”, and, at least where work is concerned, little seems to have changed on that score. He has been writing The Veil since 2008; in the year since the National committed to staging it, he hasn't stopped tweaking it. “It's a different time, a different way of speaking,” he explains. “It made me very wary.”
In his 20s, he thinks, he had a lot more bravado – but he was also prone to drown self-doubt in alcohol, refusing to accept that he had a problem until he was hospitalised with pancreatitis and almost died. That was 10 years ago; these days, he feels a greater sense of responsibility, and not just for himself. “As I get older – I turned 40 this year – I care so much more about the audience,” he says. “I really want them to have a positive experience.”
There was another compelling reason for setting The Veil in the 1820s: “Apparently it was very similar to now, in that there was a big economic crash following the Napoleonic wars,” says McPherson. “So a place like Ireland, which was very poor, was just on the floor.” Still resident in Dublin, where he was born and brought up, he was particularly sensitive to this modern resonance. “When I look at what's happened to Ireland in the past few years, I kind of think: where did this awful dysfunction in our psyche come from that we've destroyed our own country?” he rails. “On one level you can say it's just post-colonial corruption and mismanagement – but on another level it's like an echo of a long, violent trauma. For hundreds of years, to be Irish and Catholic meant your life was just shit. You were not allowed to go to school, you were not allowed to own land, you didn't have any rights. If people suddenly get that power back, of course they fuck it up.”
Witnessing his country's fall from economic grace has politicised McPherson – and made him rethink his own identity. “Before that I'd say: I was born in Ireland, but I'm not an Irish writer – I'm a writer. Now I realise, of course I'm an Irish writer.” He senses the same struggle in the work of James Joyce. “Joyce left Ireland, he wanted to have nothing to do with it. He wanted to become a citizen of the world, and to an extent he really achieved that – but he always just wrote about Dublin.” Even Beckett, he adds, who didn't set his work anywhere, still comes across as Irish. And if they couldn't escape their background, McPherson sighs, nobody can.
Joyce had a direct influence on the writing of The Veil, particularly his novel Finnegan's Wake, widely considered one of the least comprehensible ever written. “The premise of the book is that it's a family asleep and dreaming,” says McPherson. What appealed to him was Joyce's representation of “the timelessness of dreaming: years can go by in a dream, all time is eternity. I wanted to create a play in which time was somehow crashing in on itself, so that what people might think is an echo of the past is in fact a premonition of the future.”
McPherson found yet more inspiration in the German transcendental philosophy of the early 19th century. “It's so out there,” he beams. “The idea that people think that human beings are the part of God that is awakening and coming to know that he is God, it's crazy stuff. I knew I couldn't put it in a play because nobody would want to go and see it and it would be impossible to understand.” What he has done, however, is create one character who has published a book of transcendental philosophy – and another who wonders acidly why philosophers bother inventing these unreal worlds for themselves.
Although McPherson studied philosophy at university, his interests 20 years ago were “very dry, very logical”, and focused on ethics. These days, he's more inclined towards the mystical. Although he abandoned Catholicism as a teenager, he retains its appreciation for the mysteries of existence. Writers such as Richard Dawkins infuriate him: not because he doesn't agree with the idea that there's no religious God, or that religions cannot be proved, but because this argument extends to a lack of belief in the supernatural. “We don't know anything,” counters McPherson. “We're just tiny little mice trying to survive in an unknowable universe. We don't understand the nature of time or space, and the more science finds out about all of that, it only reveals more questions.” This is partly why he loves ghost stories: “They remind us of the limits of our rationality and our reason.”
There is mysticism, too, in McPherson's discussion of his future plans. The past few years have been mapped out with a variety of projects (filming The Eclipse; directing revivals of The Seafarer; writing and directing an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds in Dublin), and The Veil marks the end of that busy period. A lot of that time was also spent attempting to adopt a child with his wife of eight years, painter and composer Fionnuala Ni Chiosain: four months ago they were finally successful, and the couple now have a 20-month-old daughter from India. “I have a feeling that what's coming next is very different and I don't know what it is,” says McPherson. “It's the right time to move on.” In what way? “I don't know: to go into something else, deep into somewhere else,” comes the cryptic reply.
Alarm bells ring when he repeats: “It could be something entirely different.” Could The Veil be the last we see of McPherson on stage? Is the lure of studying obscure German philosophical theory too great? Time will tell. For now, McPherson is preoccupied by the demands of directing The Veil, and a desire to make the production the best it possibly can be, not just for his audience's sake, but because it's taking him away from his new daughter. “I want to be able to say: that was good, that was worth it. Now let's get on with our lives.”