Monday, 8 May 2017
The Ferryman at The Royal Court
This is the reason I’m a member of so many of our great London theatres. I get to be one of the first to make sure I get to see those plays that cause a flurry of excitement as soon as they are announced. Jezz Butterworth’s epic new work, The Ferryman, is one such play. Sold out in one day at the Royal Court and with tickets for its transfer to The Gielgud already sparse (and that’s before Press Night in the Sloane Square venue) anticipation at being privy to seeing the possible successor to Jerusalem, has been immense. And those of us lucky enough to watched it already can attest that we have viewed something very special indeed.
Jezz Butterworth has once more tuned into countryside rituals (Jerusalem) and gangland bureaucracy (Mojo) but on top of this he has now tackled the huge issue that was Northern Ireland in 1981. Ten republican prisoners have died from hunger strike in the Maze prison and it is no surprise that the IRA feature strongly in The Ferryman. Except for a brief prologue, the play is set in a farm in County Armagh, designed by Rob Howell, who has left no stone unturned in creating the Carney’s realistic overcrowded farmhouse kitchen. The house is inhabited by several generations of the Carney family and it’s the time of year when they and their extended family celebrate the annual harvest. However, two incidents imbue this year’s festivities with a sinister element. The body of Quinn Carney’s (Paddy Consadine) brother, Seamus, has been found face down in a bog, and this in turn elicits a visit by a leading republican. We discover that Quinn defected from the IRA just before Seamus went missing; it’s all too obvious that one’s past can never be totally erased. Butterworth equally demonstrates that the power of love (especially the forbidden and, in this case, hidden kind), can never truly stay in the shadows. From the all consuming and tender relationship between Quinn and his brother’s wife, Caitlin (the astonishing Laura Donnelly) to the two elderly sisters who both still mourn their loved ones, love is the heart and soul of this magnificent play.
As with Jerusalem, The Ferryman merges the otherworldly with meticulous realism. Aunt Maggie far away (Brid Brennan), in her rare moments of lucidity, entrances the children with her magical reminiscences, whilst the sole Englishman, Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) produces a live baby bunny and goose and there is also a live baby on stage. All of which helps ensure that we, the audience, are as one, silent and transfixed as the story enfolds.
It takes a director of Sam Mendes stature to be able to choreograph a cast of 21, plus baby on the relatively small Royal Court stage. The action unfurls as naturally as this ensemble of actors inhabit their roles. And his attention to detail is unrivalled. Genevieve O’Reilly as Quinn’s sickly wife, Mary, doesn’t need to voice her hurt that she knows she has a rival for her husband’s affections. A quiet turn of her head so as not to watch Caitlin taking charge of her kitchen is enough. Mendes also manages to change the atmosphere in the blink of an eye. From the sexual frisson when we first see Quinn and Caitlin dancing together to the tension and then fear when leading Republican Muldoon (Stuart Graham) issues his demands.
All the characters, thanks to the brilliance of the cast, are fully formed and real. No caricatures here. Paddy Consadine, in his first stage role (who would believe it) has a commanding stillness, speaking each line as if it’s the first time it’s been uttered. Laura Donelly is equally fine. Their love for each other is so heartbreakingly real that the very air between them seems to crackle. Dearbhla Molloy imbues the irascible Aunt Pat with an acerbic wit and profound passion for the Republican cause, whilst relative newcomer, Tom Glynn-Carney, is remarkable as Shane Corcoran, whose inability to keep quiet will get him into deep trouble with Muldoon.
As you can probably gather, I can’t rate The Ferryman highly enough. Jezz Butterworth who has named his play after Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead, has done it again. And despite the running time of 3hrs 20mins, or maybe because of it, I have booked to see it again in the West End. If you want to see a gem, hurry up and book too, before it’s too late.