thu 25/07/2024

The Ferryman, Royal Court, review - ‘Jez Butterworth’s storytelling triumph’ | reviews, news & interviews

The Ferryman, Royal Court, review - ‘Jez Butterworth’s storytelling triumph’

The Ferryman, Royal Court, review - ‘Jez Butterworth’s storytelling triumph’

New epic from the ‘Jerusalem’ playwright is a breathtaking experience

Troubled: Paddy Considine in ‘The Ferryman’.Johan Persson

I hate the kind of hype that sells out a new play within minutes of tickets becoming available. I mean, isn’t there something hideously lemming-like about this kind of stampede for a limited commodity? It almost makes me want to hate the show – before a word has been spoken on stage. On the other hand, there is also something delicious about the prospect of another Jez Butterworth play.

After his triumphs with Jerusalem in 2009, and its follow-up The River in 2012, it’s fascinating to see what he does next. And, as a plus, this new one stars Paddy Considine. And it’s directed by Sam Mendes, whose film cv includes two Bond movies (Skyfall and Spectre). And it transfers to the West End next month.

Its politics are nihilistic, and women play second fiddle to the men

Set in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in August 1981, the play takes place in the Carney home. This is a farming family, who grow cereals for export, and the head of the household is Quinn Carney (Considine), a former IRA man. He is married to Mary, a hypochondriac who spends most of her days in bed. The couple’s seven children range in age from 16 to nine months. The older generation is Uncle Patrick, a studious drunk, Aunt Patricia, a fierce Republican, and Aunt Maggie, whose nickname “Faraway” suggests her demented stupor, from which she occasionally surfaces. The other members of this crowded house include Caitlin, the wife of Quinn’s long-missing brother Seamus, and her 14-year-old son Oisin, as well as Tom Kettle, an English orphan brought up by the Carneys.

The action of the play begins when Seamus’s body is found. Instead of being simply missing, presumed living in England, he was actually executed by the IRA 10 years previously. When Father Horrigan, the local priest, arrives to inform Quinn and Caitlin of this discovery, he finds the Carneys in the middle of the annual harvest, hours of hard work followed by hours of eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Yes, this is a one-family harvest fayre: and as the Carneys are joined by their nephews, the teenage Corcorans, the stage is soon bulging with people and with talk and with action.

In The Ferryman, Butterworth’s triumph is that he has managed to shrug off the static quality of all of his previous plays, and has poured a whopping dose of stage action into the mix. This is a breathtakingly ample hot ticket, a story that heaves with narratives and with incidents, with jokes and with surreal moments. Perhaps predictably, Uncle Patrick introduces Virgil’s Aeneid, with its image of Charon the ferryman, and explains who is and who isn’t allowed across the River Styx. There are poems and songs, and a festive atmosphere that gradually sours into teenage rivalries and a dangerous confrontation.

Exciting moments include The Undertones’ classic “Teenage Kicks” blasting away the nostalgic tones of traditional tunes, the arrival of a remarkably placid baby, a pecking goose and a ruffled rabbit, Aunt Patricia’s stern Republican dictats, Tom Kettle’s larger-than-life eccentric characterization, a generous family meal, a rebel song sung, Aunt Maggie’s clairvoyance and her intuition that banshees are gathering, and even a poem from Sir Walter Raleigh. There’s a lovely baggy, outlandish quality to the writing. In the background are the great IRA hunger strikes of 1981 and Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence. This fuels the grim determination of the older IRA members, and the ideological fury of the teens.

As the story lurches towards its tragic ending, sprawling a bit over its more than three hours of running time, you have plenty of time to pick holes in the fabric of this magnificent edifice. You might wonder about why Butterworth spends so much time first talking up, and then subverting, the image of Irish countryside drama, setting his play in a large kitchen and constantly whipping the carpet from beneath any clichés that arrive for tea. You might consider whether the world of the play is meretricious, like Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, pandering to all our worst ideas about terrorists, violence and quaint rural communities. Although the portrait of Quinn, Mary and Caitlin is deeply sympathetic, as are the pictures of the youngest children, who are full of laughter, there’s a cruel streak in the play and its ending offers a counsel of despair. Its politics are nihilistic, and women play second fiddle to the men.

As you’d expect, Mendes orchestrates this domestic epic, on Rob Howell’s set, with enormous clarity and control. He splashes about in joyous moments and then chills us with apprehension and with foreboding. Considine has a pent-up energy, like a bomb ready to go off, that explodes in a well-focused fury, and he positively smoulders with desire and guilt. He is well matched by Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly as Caitlin and Mary (pictured above). Of the rest of enormous cast I particularly enjoyed the performances of Dearbhla Molloy’s Aunt Patricia, Des McAleer’s Uncle Patrick, John Hodgkinson’s Tom Kettle and Tom Glynn-Carney’s ferocious young Corcoran. It’s really an amazing experience, if a rather heartless one. But Butterworth’s storytelling finesse carries all before it.

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