Jez Butterworth’s brilliance is found somewhere in the way that he sets up conflict – a sense of foreboding that underpins the celebration and the daily drama of family life that make up the majority of the narrative of The Ferryman – but without you ever being able to guess what’s coming next. The world he sets up is both edged with violence brewing from the city and a pastoral escape into a farming family’s harvest celebrations. In that sense, we are made to feel that politics and travesty lie elsewhere. It is left to a proudly nationalist Aunt, her ear pinned to the radio with its news of Thatcher and hunger strikes, to ground us in time and place. It’s only the wrung neck of the harvest goose that gives any indication the troubles might visit them there.
We start in medias res – in the grey city – and are introduced to a man of stern authority dressed in black and a kind village pastor. Threats are insinuated. Stories told. Just as swiftly, we’re transported into the merry scene of a man and a woman drinking in a farmhouse kitchen. It’s a gloriously detailed set by Robert Howell – fastidiously so – working taps, books, children’s drawings, all the kitchen utensils, a stair case leading to the bedrooms and curtains built into the design to conceal exits and entrances and prying ears. Who are this nighttime pair? But we don’t have time to work it out before the family wakes up.
In the tumult, gorgeous children are clammering for their Dad’s attention, someone’s son is making a kite, a girl sings to her baby sister and a Great Aunt is wheeled in her mind far far away. The generations come together in a muddle of joyous expectation on harvest day. And more cousins are expected. Working out the relationships between everyone takes time. Perhaps that is part of what keeps this play intensely compelling; you’re always trying to work something out. Who is that? Why are they like that? Are they always like that? The answers never cease to surprise you.
It’s hard to say what makes Butterworth’s writing so impeccable and Sam Mendes’ direction so engrossing. It’s an unforgettable play that takes you on a ride through Irish folk songs, a breaking marriage, a lonely child’s cry out for meaning, a fervent auntie, a heartbroken old woman, a woman in love, a radicalised young man, a stoic and righteous pair of brothers, two countries wrenched apart by oppression and a sense of the history and politics that haunts every word. It’s a play about waiting through prolonged uncertainty. It’s a play about family. About storytelling. A play about the cycles of history and the circles of revenge. But it’s also a painfully specific story of Ireland not forty years ago.
The cast is faultless from youngest to oldest, baby to goose. In particular, Laura Donnelly (Outlander) embodies the fight, honesty and sacrifice of a woman who has decided to have pleasure in life when life has treated her harshly. Her extended family are rooted by her just as Donnoelly is the lynchpin of an excellent cast. Paddy Considine plays the head of the family, Quinn Carnney, with gentle leadership you could never doubt or disobey. The waif-like and quiet presence of Genevieve O’Reilly as Mary Carnney is an important counterpoint to the ruccous family she evades.
The Ferryman takes your soul on a journey that erases all memory of earthly life. I left feeling physically shaken and totally in love with the world I had experienced. I felt desperately in need of a sequel and yet pained to think of another what next. Its characters will leave you reeling with sorrow and joy. At times you’ll want to be on stage with them dancing to the land and to family. At others you’ll gasp at the tragedy of it all. One thing’s for certain: this play is a modern classic and you’ll not experience anything else quite like it for years to come.
I should note that I saw a preview performance of The Ferryman but held my review till press night. The run at the Royal Court has sold out but tickets are available from £12 for the West End Transfer.