3 May 2017
At several points during Jez Butterworth’s phenomenal new play The Ferryman, characters talk about “moving on” but however much they try to put the past behind them, it has a way of coming back to bite. Set against the background of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, it tells the story of a large, apparently happy family where troubles and crisis lurk not far off, threatening to destroy them.
Quinn Carney, his wife and their seven children live what seems to be a bucolic ideal on a farm in County Armagh along with his late brother’s widow Caitlin and teenage son Oisin plus a trio of elderly relatives. We see them singing and dancing and celebrating the harvest while the older ones tell stories of love and nostalgia. If this weren’t heart-warming enough, there are even live rabbits and a goose and a distractingly cute real-life baby on stage.
But we know that a threat awaits them from the start, with an opening scene where a paramilitary Republican leader in Derry reveals that the body of Quinn’s brother, Seamus, has been found murdered, buried in peat bog for 10 years. Using threats, he despatches the Carneys’ local priest back home to warn Quinn not to give the authorities any reason to pin the blame for his death on the Republicans..
We also come to realise another threat lurks beneath the Waltons-like idyll of the Carneys where it emerges that Quinn and Caitlin are closer than in-laws should be while Quinn’s wife Mary spends much of her time in bed with a mysterious succession of flu-like illnesses. The drama even has its own smoking gun after we hear a touching story of elderly Aunt Pat’s long-ago unrequited love – another recurring theme of the play – that ends by letting us know she has a pistol hidden in the house.
Directed by Sam Mendes, the production is gripping as it subtly builds up the tension but also provides plenty of laughs. It is full of storytelling, initially in the older folk’s memories of days gone by but later also in the younger generation’s accounts of terrorist activities. Folk tales also come into play, most notably from Aunt Maggie Faraway who tells of old Irish fairy battles and the banshees that still inhabit the land. Like Butterworth’s previous hit Jerusalem, this brings a haunting mood to the play that adds an epic dimension.
Although Aunt Maggie Faraway has few lines, she is a powerful presence played by Bríd Brennan alongside Des McAleer as the avuncular Uncle Pat and Dearbhla Molloy as fiery Republican supporter Aunt Pat. Paddy Considine has a quiet steeliness as Quinn, a good-humoured family man with hidden passions and a hidden past, while Laura Donnelly is fantastic as the sad, restless Caitlin. Genevieve O’Reilly is softly brooding as Mary, a constant reminder that something is broken within this seemingly perfect family.
Fra Fee, Niall Wright and Tom Glynn-Carney are excellent as the older teenagers at the head of a strong cast of young actors as the next generation of the Carney family. We see their innocence already under threat from sectarianism and, while we can hope the troubles in Northern Ireland are being settled, the play reminds us that violence and passion cause wounds that are not so easy to heal.
Running to May 20 at the Royal Court and from June 20 to October 7, 2017, at the Gielgud Theatre