“Butterworth and Mendes deliver shattering tale of passion and violence”
The combination of Jez Butterworth as writer and Sam Mendes as director has inevitably turned this play into a hot ticket. But behind the box-office glamour of a work co-produced with Sonia Friedman and already destined for the West End lies a rich, serious, deeply involving play about the shadows of the past and the power of silent love. Only in the final moments of a play that runs well over three hours did I question Butterworth’s mastery of his material.
You could say the play combines the gangland politics of his first hit, Mojo, with the rural rituals of his later work including Jerusalem. That, however, would be to do Butterworth an injustice, since there are big issues at stake. The year is 1981. The setting, except for a brief prologue, is a 50-acre farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. In the Maze prison, 10 republican prisoners die after a hunger strike. But, down on the farm, Quinn Carney, a reformed IRA activist, is celebrating the annual harvest with his extended family. Two events, however, show the inescapability of the past. One is the discovery of the body of Quinn’s brother, who disappeared 10 years earlier after Quinn’s defection from the IRA. The other is the arrival on the farm of a leading republican power figure.
Butterworth is not the first person to dramatise the intersection of politics and private life in Northern Ireland: coincidentally the same theme is explored, from a Protestant perspective, in David Ireland’s Everything Between Us, currently at London’s Finborough theatre.
But what gives Butterworth’s play such shattering force is its Hardyesque love of rural rituals and its compassionate exploration of unspoken love. At the heart of the play lies the tender relationship between Quinn, whom Paddy Considine endows with an unflinching integrity, and his brother’s wife, Caitlin, beautifully played by Laura Donnelly. The idea of secret passion extends to two aunts who, in different ways, lost their loved ones.
It reaches its fulfilment, however, in the captivating moment when a slow-witted English factotum reads Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem The Silent Lover at the harvest home.
There are many other themes coursing through this abundant play: one, hinted at in the title with its reference to the Virgilian ferryman, Charon, is of unburied souls roaming the earth. But the power of Mendes’s terrific production, which I saw at the final preview, lies in its ability to combine scrupulous naturalism with a sense of the mysterious. Astonished gasps greet the presence of real rabbits, a goose and even a baby on stage. But one tiny moment illustrates Mendes’s microscopic approach: the way Genevieve O’Reilly, as Quinn’s ailing wife, quietly averts her gaze as Donnelly’s Caitlin bustles about their communal kitchen speaks volumes about the plight of two women in love with the same man.
All the performances, like Rob Howell’s set with its antique beams and time-weathered walls, are invested with the same intense detail. Bríd Brennan as Aunt Maggie Faraway, whose name says it all, is as eloquent in her watchful silence as in her rare moments of speech. Dearbhla Molloy as Aunt Patricia, meanwhile, is filled with the inextinguishable rage of the politically militant. Des McAleer as a loquacious uncle with a love of the classics, John Hodgkinson as the lone Englishman with his own hidden desires, and Stuart Graham as the inflexible IRA leader anxious to bury the sins of the past are equally fine.
But, if Butterworth’s engrossing and haunting play tells us anything, it is that the violent past can no more be suppressed than the private passions that we are afraid to articulate.
“It has the feel of an unearthed, instant classic”
Jez Butterworth's mainstage follow-up to his 2009 smash-hit play, Jerusalem, set a new box-office record when tickets for this Sloane Square run sold out in one day last November. A West End transfer (to the Gielgud Theatre) was already in the bag long before the piece went into previews. Now we can see that all the fuss was largely justified. Running at three hours 20 minutes, this is a richly absorbing and emotionally abundant play, directed with detailed humane mastery by Sam Mendes. The pair have worked together before on the scripts for Skyfall and Spectre, the director's two Bond films but this is their first theatrical collaboration.
The Ferryman returns to the scale of Jerusalem, after the dramatist's lyrical, elusive chamber-piece, The River, in 2012. Jerusalem was a sceptical celebration of the ancient rural rituals in this green and pleasant land. The new play with a cast of 21 – not including the goose, rabbit or baby – is set in County Armagh, in 1981, at the height of the Troubles. In the Maze Prison, ten men are dying on hunger strike, including Bobby Sands. Family patriarch, Quinn Carney (superbly played by Paddy Considine, here making his stage debut) has long since forsworn activism with the IRA in favour of life as a farmer with his wife and eight children. From the time his brother Seamus went missing ten years ago, his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her son have lived as a full part of the household.
This year's harvest preparations – the hard day's work on the land followed by a traditional night of feasting – are going ok, give or take the specially fattened celebratory goose escaping from its pen, and the harvest kite being destroyed in a fit of adolescent temper. The production keeps warm, expert control of the mercurial moods and temperamental traffic of the vast family who range from an adorable babe-in-arms to waspish, militantly Republican aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) who has never got over the death of their older brother in the Easter Rising of 1916 and Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan) whose garrulous patches of roguish lucidity make up to fault for the intervals when she's tuned out.
But then the priest arrives with the news that the audience has known since the first scene, set in Derry. The missing man's body has surfaced in one of the bogs just across the border. It's perfectly preserved – hands and feet bound, with a bullet hole visible in the back of the head. This proof that the past cannot be buried has profound consequences in which the political and personal get painfully twisted. It raises questions about the continued presence in the house of Laura Donnelly's extraordinarily moving Caitlin who has developed a suppressed mutual passion for her brother-in-law over the years and a talent for home-making that has atrophied in his invalid wife.
There are disquieting visits from the remorselessly rigid Muldoon (Stuart Gilbert) and his IRA henchmen who don't want the publicity advantage they have gained because of the hunger strikes squandered now and so demand a complete public exoneration for the death of Seamus if they are to leave the family alone. Some very well written scenes of late-night teenage boozing explore the tensions between peaceable rural behaviour of the Carney lads and the harder ways of their visiting Corcoran cousins – especially Tom Glynn-Carney's Shane who is at once electric and pathetic as he delivers his account of being Catholic in Derry and the impact of the Sands' funeral and let loose with his dangerously indiscreet boasts about working for Mr Muldoon.
John Hodgkinson's is funny and very touching as Tom Kettle, the slow-witted gentle giant who was first taken in by the family as a twelve-year-old English destitute kid inexplicably left to his own devices. I could work out too clearly, though, what his place was going to be in the pile-up of tragedies that are precipitated in rather a rush at the end. With a light touch, Butterworth gets due metaphoric mileage, however, out of Virgil's Charon, the ferryman of the title, who is forbidden to give passage to only two types of soul in the Underworld: those whose bones are unburied and those that lie to the innocent. The piece is not as original as Jerusalem, but it has the feel of an unearthed, instant classic.
“Magnificent; a stunning family drama”
“Miss this and you’ve missed a marvel”
Tickets for the Sloane Square run of The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s long-awaited, keenly anticipated Royal Court main-stage follow-up to that enormo-smash of 2009 Jerusalem sold out in one day last November (a record for the theatre). It’s already lined up for a West End transfer. A rightful testament of popular faith in his exceptional powers, or panic-buying born of rash cult-like devotion? He was once his generation’s boy-wonder, courtesy of 1995’s Mojo – and then Jerusalem, which transferred to Broadway (and wowed it too) catapulted him to guru status, British playwriting’s king-pin.
Much as some might like to see the king dethroned, it gives me a mixture of pleasure, relief and a smidgen of envy to report that the advance fuss about this has, largely, been worthwhile. Butterworth has done it again, this time with another rural drama of mighty magnitude set across a single, darkening day.
Jerusalem gave us the “full English” – 14 characters, a sprawling state-of-the-nation epic (entailing a career-best turn from Mark Rylance). Journeying to Armagh, Northern Ireland and taking us back to the harvest of late August 1981 – time of ongoing Troubles, height of the Hunger Strikes – The Ferryman, serves up, you could josh, the full Irish, with director Sam Mendes bringing it to table with élan and a crack ensemble.
This is a three-hour feast populated with an even more ambitious 22 characters, the bulk of them the (Catholic) Carney clan, whose members range from their eighties to a nine-month-old babby and at the centre of which there’s a covert love-triangle: with Paddy Considine’s (farmer and father) Quinn pining for his sister-in-law Caitlin while his wife Mary lies sick abed.
At times, it’s as if we’re watching the Armagh equivalent of The Archers: there’s a real-life goose and rabbits – the latter clutched by an otherworldly English neighbour called Tom Kettle. Adding to the doolally tally, there’s “Aunt Maggie Faraway” – a wheel-chair-bound biddy (a painstakingly immobile Brid Brennan) with a handy propensity for emerging from a locked-in reverie to spill family secrets about the Easter Rising and sound the alarm about the Banshees, those keening mythological harbingers of death.
How much more you really need to know about the suspenseful plot, which hinges on the grisly discovery of Quinn’s 10-years-absent brother, opening the door to sinister overtures from menacing members of the IRA (whose reach is also detectable in a visiting trio of teenage cousins), I’m not sure. What I can openly observe is that there is a new warmth about Butterworth’s writing – which eschews the self-aware dialogue of yore and taps his own Irish-Catholic provenance (and arguably Irish masters like Friel and McGuinness too) for a vitality that memorably manifests itself in wild Dionysiac outbreaks of dancing.
The company, to a man, woman and scampering child, answer the deep-saturated intensity of it: Considine, making his stage-debut, and Laura Donnelly are perfect as the unrequited in-laws, Dearbhla Molloy is waspishly entertaining as a black-clad, die-hard Republican aunt and flame-haired Tom Glynn-Carney makes his libidinal mark as the most unruly of the teen visitors. If you notice the odd contrivance, the hypnotist author casts such a spell that you are barely bothered.
This compelling evening, which derives its title from a classical allusion to Charon, ferryman of the dead, brings to the boil the meat of human life: the anguish of suppressed longing and lives half-lived, the distinction between land and home-land, the allure of violence and the need to take a death-defying stand against it. Butterworth’s promise? Amply confirmed. As good as Jerusalem? Well, perhaps not, but that’s beside the point. Miss this and you’ve missed a marvel.
“Stunning, sprawling and richly written”
“A triumphant, bold piece of theatre”