History was made at the Royal Court Theatre when the entire run of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman sold out in just a matter of hours. It boasts another first: the appearance of a live goose on stage, as well as a rabbit and a real baby, though the latter also featured recently in Nina Raine’s Consent at the National. Call them crowd-pleasing appendages to a strikingly brilliant drama by the author of the prize-winning Jerusalem. But where Jerusalem was quintessentially English, The Ferryman is Irish to its core.
The time is 1981 and although the prologue takes place in an alleyway in Bogside, Derry, the rest of the play – a kind of long day’s journey into night – is set, courtesy of designer Rob Howell, in a farmhouse kitchen in County Armagh, Northern Island. The owner is erstwhile IRA activist Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), who has shed his political affiliations and is now a farmer with a wife (Genevieve O’Reilly) and nine children.
Harvest celebrations are imminent, and as the immediate Carney family and assorted relatives prepare for the annual ritual, the mood darkens when the local priest (Gerald Horan) tells Quinn that the body of his brother Seamus, who disappeared shortly after Quinn’s defection from the IRA a decade ago, has been discovered in a bog across the border, perfectly preserved but with a bullet hole in its neck. It’s a powerful reminder that in Ireland’s “troubles” the past can never be buried and will inevitably surfaces to haunt the present.
News also reaches Quinn that in the Maze Prison, Bobby Sands and nine other Republicans have starved themselves to death.
Apart from the political background that seeps, miasma-like, through the play, the events in The Ferryman are fleshed out by the unspoken, unconsummated would-be love between Quinn and Seamus’s widow Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), who, with her moody son Oisin (Rob Malone), also lives at the farm and who, because of Mary Carney’s chronic ill-health, has more or less taken over the running of the extended household.
Though there is certainly enough plot to justify the plays’ three hours and 15 minutes (including a coup de theatre climax that comes perilously close to bathos and melodrama), the glue that binds the narrative is the underlying sense of yearning, loss and lack of fulfilment Butterworth expresses so eloquently in the richness of his characterisations and the superb quality of his writing.
For example, though Maggie Faraway (Brid Brennan), a wheelchair-ridden biddy and great aunt to the Carneys, has gone mentally walkabout, she has flashes of vivid lucidity. In one such moment she breaks our heart when we learn about her unrequited love for a boy who hardly knew she existed. Another aunt, Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy), a staunch Republican militant, cannot forget the death of her beloved older brother in the 1916 Easter Rising. There’s also an eccentric English gentle-giant of a man called Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), whom the Carney’s took in and cared for since he was 12 years old. He “collects rainbows,” carries apples and live rabbits in his pockets, and is unrequitedly in love with Caitlin, who loves Quinn.
Making a strong impression too is IRA leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham), who wants the truth of Seamus Quinn’s murder to remain buried, as well as Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney), a volatile, politically active cousin to Quinn.
Though very much an ensemble piece in which the entire cast is worthy of special mention, the stand-out performances are by Considine (his stage debut), O’Reilly and Donnelly, a trio of strikingly different characters, all suffused with sadness, longing and a lack of fulfilment.
Sam Mendes directs with the kind of flair and intelligence most playwrights dream about. Alert to the many shifting moods and tensions created in the script, and with an exemplary eye for detail, he steers a narrow, decidedly risky path through the alternating moods of realism and whimsy, pathos and humour (of which there is much), scrupulously avoiding the caricatures and stereotypes with which Butterworth mischievously and deliberately toys.
Not only is this the best play about the Irish troubles since O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, but with its three-act structure, its ambition, its aspirations and themes, you have to go back to the epic theater of Eugene O’Neill, early Arthur Miller and vintage Tennessee Williams for the kind of overwhelming visceral impact Butterworth delivers.