Walking into a play without any prior knowledge of what I’m about to review is not normal protocol but as the media night I was invited to coincided with the day for submitting my English module portfolios, I had little extra time to prepare and this turned out to be a good thing. Walking out of the Royal Court’s Jerwood theatre three-and-a-bit hours later, I listened to the other theatre-goers who exuberantly exclaimed that Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ had lived up to the hype and although I had heard on the theatrical grapevine that it was highly anticipated, I had no idea why. It wasn’t until the play began, in a back alley where a Catholic priest is told a man, Seamus Carney, had been found in the bog with a gun shot in the back of his head, that I realised I was in for an absorbing tale that mixed the modern with the mythic and threw around literary references like confetti at a festival – or harvest.
Set on a farm in Armagh, Northern Ireland, the Carney family prepare to bring in the yearly harvest yet are unprepared for the past that’s about to be unearthed. Paddy Considine makes an impressive stage debut as the brother of Seamus, Quinn, who we first meet in the opening scene with a woman, Caitlin – expertly played by Laura Donnelly – playing games until the break of day in the farmhouse kitchen. It appears to be an intimate moment but all is not as it seems in this formidably handled tale by director Sam Mendes. The director, although he cut his teeth on the boards as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, may be better known for his films American Beauty, Road to Perdition and the latest ‘007’ offerings yet it’s in the theatre where, in my opinion, his gifts lie. Such an intricately layered story as this, with its sub-plot as riveting as its rival, shows off both the skill of the playwright and the director alike.
Just as the peat preserves bodies like pickles (naming the bog-man Seamus is no coincidence, I’m sure), so too are the wounds that the family have born for 10 years, unaware of the whereabouts of the missing brother. Caitlin and her son are taken in by the Carney family and as the years go by familial relations shift and the balance of husband, wife and sister-in-law create tensions that are disrupted by the 21-strong cast that include a goose, a rabbit and a baby – all alive and kicking. Backdrop to the setting is ‘The Troubles’ which bring in Quinn’s involvement with the IRA and the repercussions of history which re-surface from the recollections of the elders; Aunt Pat – carrying her pain of losing a beloved brother in the Easter Uprising – an avid reader who reads the passage of Virgil’s Aeneid about the wandering souls of the dead to the priest who holds a guilty conscience, and Aunt Maggie ‘Faraway’ who remains in a wheelchair day-dreaming except for brief moments of lucidity when she remembers the ‘pleasant’ past alongside hearing ‘banshees’ wailing outside, wanting to rest in peace.
Butterworth is clearly well-read and enjoys adding layers of intertextuality to build upon his concept of history with an absorbing and thought-provoking piece about an occupation by a foreign power in land unjustly taken. This is happening now and seems to resonate beyond the 1980s in which this play is set. The tensions are high to start and the family secrets unfold drop by drop and yet the ending, although anticipated, hits like a hammer in a scene of Steinbeck-esque tragedy which shocks all the more due to the superb naturalism of the many tangled layers of this portrait of one Irish family.
A play of this calibre has sold out fast but £12 Monday tickets are released weekly before the production – cleverly – transfers to the West End, so for a chance to see theatre at its charismatic best, ‘The Ferryman’ is well-worth the ticket.
‘The Ferryman’ plays until May 20th at The Royal Court Theatre where tickets start at £12. Box office: 020-7565-5000. The production will transfer to the West End, playing at the Gielgud Theatre from June 20th – October 7th.