The year is 1981. Set in a farmhouse kitchen in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, ‘The Ferryman’ follows the Carney family, busily preparing for the annual harvest. This year however, they are interrupted by a visitor, who brings chilling news regarding the decade old disappearance of a family member.
The play opens with head of the Carney household and reformed IRA activist Quinn Carney, dancing into the early hours of the morning with Caitlin, a character appearing to be his wife on account of the obvious intimacy between them. The audience are shocked to discover, however, that Caitlin is actually Quinn’s sister in law, the wife of his missing brother, although it is clear the two share an unspoken love. This theme is explored as the play develops, culminating with one character’s reading of Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem, ”The Silent Lover’, highlighting the power of silent love.
When morning arrives, the two are interrupted by a hoard of young (and somewhat foul-mouthed) children, who seem to grow in number as the play develops. Each busies themselves in preparing for the harvest. Festivities cease, however, when a priest arrives relating the news that Quinn’s brother (Caitlin’s husband) and IRA man Seamus Carney, who we know has been missing for ten years, is confirmed dead, his body discovered in a bog. Until this point, Caitlin had been living in a state of hopefulness, fuelled by the absence of such a discovery. The audience subsequently witness the consequences of this news unfold with a dazzling intensity.
Jez Butterworth‘s play was inspired by the past of leading actress Laura Donnelly; her real-life uncle was murdered by the IRA, his body discovered three years later. The idea of such futile hope remains at the forefront of Butterworth’s play, and is central to plot – with the presence of a body, “She can grieve. In time the pain finds a home”. Without a body, without confirmation of death, however, you “Give that woman hope. Keep the wound open”.
Butterworth’s compelling story is delivered beautifully by the cast, who perform with a raw, emotional intensity, giving each character a fully rounded and intricate complexity. Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly spearhead the strong ensemble in the leading roles, both offering forceful and detailed performances, highlighting the tender relationship between the two characters. Caitlin’s presence changes the family dynamic somewhat, the result a family that is “topsy-turvy”, “lopsided”, and so the tension is palpable when Donnelly is alone on stage with Genevieve O’Reilly’s fragile Mary Carney. John Hodgkinson is irresistible as slow-witted farmhand Tom Kettle, a gentle giant whose English background is an important point for reflection later in the play.
Tom Glynn-Carney deserves special mention as extended family member Shane Corcoran, his dominating performance demanding the unwavering attention of his audience. Perfectly reflecting the appeal of extremism to the naive and disillusioned youth and a desire for his perception of justice, albeit a distorted one, his masterful characterisation is outstanding; he steals every scene he appears in. Although, this is not to say there are any weak links in the cast. The many children in the play are extraordinary, their performances as professional, faultless and engaging as those of the adults. I’m sure they will be propelled to greatness as a result.
The play’s intimate set design is sublime, lending to the stage a great sense of naturalism; the audience are made to feel as though they are watching events from within this ‘lived-in’ farmhouse itself. The flagstone floor, wooden beams and abundance of domestic props create a very ”lived-in’ feel. The attention to detail, even down to pictures drawn by the younger characters lining the walls, is worthy of note, adding rich life to the play. The animals that appear only serve to add a greater sense of reality to this rural setting.
Every element of this production echoes real life. Rich, absorbing, soulful and gritty, the play mimics the joys, sorrows, heartache and tragedy experienced by all of humanity, exploring the basic fundamental principles of everyday life. So intrinsically Irish, Butterworth captures in his writing a reflection of rural culture and of family life in Northern Ireland, and that strong Irish spirit, that “hunger for justice” so ripe at the time in which the play is set.
Although specifically set during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which forms the framework for the play’s narrative, the large and serious issues that are raised are, not only timely, but timeless, and indeed global, bearing a universal quality. This thematic idea of the shadows of the past coming back to haunt us is all too familiar. The fact that “the years roll by and nothing changes” carries the weight, unnerving thought that we cannot bury our past, that it is inescapable, destined to catch up with us sooner or later. And, as we see with the Carney family, it’s entirely possible for the consequences of a person’s actions to be passed from generation to generation and, no matter how deeply such secrets may appear buried in the earth, an entire family may be left to bear the cost, be it directly or indirectly. Just like the seeds planted at harvest, we will always reap what we sow.
Sam Mendes‘ exquisite and expert direction ensures the power of Butterworth’s writing is not lost. This is very much a play about love, loss and life, brimming with passion and violence. Political, yet surprisingly funny. The masterful combination of director and playwright makes for extraordinary theatre and the play has, quite deservedly, risen to critical acclaim.
Indeed, one might go so far as to say that the sheer brilliance and beauty of this play will itself linger in a state of theatrical purgatory, doomed to roam, to haunt, the West End, able only to make that transition into theatre history if, and when, another truly great production arrives to take its place. Although, something tells me we’ll have quite a wait.
This production is nothing short of perfection, a true masterpiece, simply oozing with class. A beautifully crafted play full of life, this is theatre at its very finest.