Recently, it’s been impossible to avoid the tweets from wounded audiences, stumbling out from the Royal Court following Jez Butterworth’s latest play. So I arrived, braced and armed with a crash mat, ready for an epic three hours of The Ferryman. And whoa, is it epic.
It’s set in 1980s Northern Ireland, at the height of conflict and growing reign of the IRA. The hum of helicopters threatens overhead, gentle priests are pressured into corruption and a farming family have waited ten years for news of their missing brother and husband Seamus.
But although the unrest in Northern Ireland provides the backdrop for Butterworth’s play, it’s one of the many threads that feed this rich and complex tapestry. From a grotty back alley, we’re transported to Rob Howell’s grand and chaotic farmhouse in rural County Armagh. It bursts with a lively brood, elderly family members and an abundance of animals (like, actual live ones) and it’s here that family feels at the real heart of this play.
There’s the chattering of the little’ens, bravado of the teens and the ramblings of the aunts and uncles, and it’s the stories we tell when we all come together. It’s harvest time and a grand celebration for the Carney clan, where the importance of family and togetherness touches. As the whiskey flows, everyone has a tale, and Butterworth intricately weaves them together. There are tales of the past, of pain and of unrequited love.
There’s a wonderful crossing of generations: the oldies who have experienced extreme political violence, the adults with it still very much a part of their present, and the youthful idealists, full of fire and hunger for revolution. However, the threat of the outside world is never far away. Aunt Pat (a wonderfully cutting Dearbhla Molloy) is a rooted force as she brings the celebrations to a crashing halt, cutting off ‘Teenage Kicks’ to reel off the names of those who have died hunger striking, in a brutally grounding moment.
It’s a big cast but each one are exceptional, from Paddy Considine as the head of the Carney family to the talented troop of young actors – even the wee baby. Considine has a calming and reassuring presence as the doting Dad, Quinn. He’s a kind-hearted, honest family man, but with an earned respect and sense of authority.
He has a glowing chemistry with Laura Donnelly and when we first see them, in the twilight hours, they tenderly dance around to the Rolling Stones and we presume they’re together. Donnelly however, is his sister-in-law Caitlin, quietly hiding her pain of the past but growing strong in her hope for the future. Their longing for each other is a heart-breaking watch, sharing stolen moments, with Quinn’s withdrawn wife mostly in her room.
Sam Mendes’ direction is utterly gripping, as the play delicately unravels with an expert restraint. It slowly burns until the final moments become a roaring blaze. You are simply stunned and feel paralysed to the confines of your seat. Butterworth has written an ambitious text, but Mendes deftly ensures the tension is never lost and simmers along to an explosive end.
The Ferryman is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre that touches everyone who watches. We are all affected, all broken and all aware we have witnessed something really special. Unmissable.
(Photo courtesy of Johan Persson)