“This family can take care of its own”
The hype around Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman was so expertly managed that the show became the fastest-selling-ever for the Royal Court with a West End transfer already neatly positioned to meet the demand. And why not, Jerusalem conquered the country (if not me) and The River stretched all the way to Broadway, plus The Ferryman also has Sam Mendes making his Royal Court debut – it’s almost as if co-producer Sonia Friedman knows what she is doing!
The play’s the thing though and here, Butterworth has constructed a Northern Irish epic. Set at harvest-time in 1981, deep in County Armagh, the Carney clan are gathering for a humdinger of a do once the work in the field is done. And what a clan it is, Rob Howell’s farmhouse kitchen design really does disguise its hidden depths as family member after family member emerges from its nooks and crannies, and that’s before the cousins from Derry have turned up too. But as with any family drama worth its salt, it’s the guests you’re not expecting that you have to watch out for.
At the centre of the household is Quinn Carney (remarkably, Paddy Considine’s stage debut), a farmer now but formerly a member of the IRA and try as he might, those connections are hard to shift, especially where his brother Seamus is concerned. It was Seamus’ disappearance that precipitated Quinn’s retirement and it is revelations thereon that provide much of the narrative energy here. But the real beauty in The Ferryman comes from the portrayal of the sprawling extended family and all the politics that stem from its generational entanglements.
Seamus’ wife Caitlin lives with them, helping out around the house, and in Laura Donnelly’s hands, she burns as bright as wildfire, a potently marked contrast to Genevieve O’Reilly’s exhausted Mary, Quinn’s wife and mother to his substantial, squabbling brood of 7. The older generation are represented by the likes of Dearbhla Molloy’s fearsome Republican Aunt Pat and Bríd Brennan’s utterly captivating Aunt Maggie Faraway, both of whom are liable to spill inconvenient truths at the pouring of a wee drop of whiskey, whilst also constructing a social history of Ulster that is ultimately inseparable from its politics.
The future lies with the young’uns but Butterworth eloquently shows us how difficult it is for personal history to shake family ties, celebrations are stopped by Aunt Pat to mark the death of a hunger striker but it is youthful cousin Shane (a startling turn from Tom Glynn-Carney) who starts up the singing of a revolutionary song. And it is Caitlin’s only son Oisin on whom the disappearance of his da has weighed the heaviest. As the repercussions of that pesky visitor percolate throughout the household, you don’t need Nick Powell’s ominous sound design to tell you tragedy isn’t far away.
Sam Mendes cheerfully flicks up two fingers to the old adage about not working with children or animals to provide a range of surprises but there’s real skill in the way he marshals the large ensemble, hinting at the tribalism within or even just the power of the family bond as 15 bodies cram around the table for the feast. With the help of Peter Mumford’s exceptional lighting, there’s beautiful depth to the quieter moments too, as Butterworth evokes the island’s mythical past to haunting effect.
I saw the show on Monday, the penultimate preview, and I’m not quite sure the production has its pacing quite right as we go deep into the third hour and then the fourth. When it comes – for we know it must come, especially due to the first recorded sighting of Chekhov’s goose * – the gut punch lands like a sledgehammer but it is a slightly hurried moment that leaves you stumbling out of the theatre rather than shaking in your seat. But I’m complaining about an embarrassment of riches really – Brennan, Considine and Donnelly are simply superb and Butterworth proves himself once again a storyteller par excellence and a wise chronicler of our nation.