Since its sell out run at the Royal Court earlier in the year Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ has received a plethora of rave reviews, yesterday I caught the West End transfer of Sam Mendes’s highly acclaimed production. Set on a farm in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s during ‘The Troubles’ it focused on the Carney family and how, through submerging themselves in pastoral life, they sought to distance themselves from the violent intensity of the struggles of that era. However, Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) was constantly on hand to remind the family of the harsh brutality of life in Northern Ireland outside the relative comfort of the Carney’s microcosm. She would listen intently to the radio and inform the family of the hunger strikers in the notorious Maze Prison. The stalemate of the struggle was evocatively captured by Margaret Thatcher’s claim that ‘Crime is crime is crime’ ringing out from the family radio. This set the tone for a thrilling examination of how conflicting perceptions of national identity can have a devastating impact on family relationships.
For almost the full three hours and ten minutes the sole setting was the Carney’s kitchen, this was striking in its simplicity. At times the kitchen was a hub of excitement for the whole family with whiskey being passed around, jokes being told and Irish dancing at the harvest celebration. However, the kitchen was also a place where secrets were shared and plots hatched which depicted the darker, more secretive lives of the Carney family. You were constantly made to think about who is, or could be, offstage listening, lurking and processing the drama onstage. Paddy Considine played the patriarch Quinn (whose brother Seamus had disappeared ten years earlier under suspicious circumstances), he was masterful and commanding in the central role (his first theatrical performance). His chemistry with his sister in law, Caitlyn (Laura Donnelly), was palpable and made all the more awkward by the presence of his wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly). Uncle Pat (Des McAleer) stood out for me as the comedic, whiskey swilling old man of the family. However, he was haunting as he recounted Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid with its tales of stagnant souls in the underworld. The overt intertextuality highlighted the continual pain and suffering that occurs from the lack of closure when a death is left unexplained and a body has not been recovered.
The play interrogated the impact that living through the trauma of ‘The Troubles’ had on the younger generation. Shena (Carla Langley), one of the daughters, sang Kim Wilde’s infectious early 80s pop anthem ‘Kids in America’, its joyful exuberance signalling a more carefree and appropriate world for the teenagers of the play. Oisin’s (Rob Malone) kite hinted at the desire of this troubled young man who, living without the full knowledge of what had happened to his father, sought to emancipate himself from the stifling atmosphere of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, I missed Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’ a few years ago, so this was my first experience of a Jez Butterworth play. The subtlety and complexity of the plot of ‘The Ferryman’ was exquisite, small details were revealed delicately throughout the three acts which culminated in an explosive climax. There were a few occasions where I thought things could have been swifter in order to maintain the dramatic intensity of the play. The criticism of Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) for being a somewhat strange Englishman was, for me, not wholly necessary and slightly clunky. However, the scope of Butterworth’s play and his skill for depicting the unresolved tensions of family life was phenomenal; I would definitely recommend catching it as soon as possible!