There’s certainly a reading of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman that sees it as a drawing together of literary allusions. There’s a dead goose (as well as a live one) that hangs over the sink like Konstantin’s seagull, people quote Virgil, Raleigh and sing several folk songs. It’s a play with the oral tradition at its spine; stories are constantly being swapped among the family. History is its own story, of course, and it’s this that I think Butterworth chooses to investigate, through generational politics and a classic tragic structure, although Sam Mendes’ production does seem to highlight them.
The Ferryman centres on a family bringing in the annual harvest in rural County Armagh in 1981. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is the man of the house, with his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) and his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and the many children surrounding him, as well as his aunts and an Uncle, and Corcorans from Derry there to help with the harvest. It is a packed house, the Royal Court stage teeming with life. Into this ritual walks a man to inform Caitlin that her husband – missing the past 10 years – has been found in a bog. It is likely he was there the whole time.
Basically, Butterworth + Mendes + Irish History = Harry is very interested.
I kept thinking of that Cranberries lyric “it’s the same old theme / since nineteen-sixteen / in your head in your head / they are fighting.” There are those in the play, mainly Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) that carry the ghosts of 1916 with them. For them the war is clear cut ideologically, one character even jokes that her hatred of Margaret Thatcher is what keeps her alive. She believes there is more than enough historical justification for the war to be fought along black and white lines, and it appears most of it happens in her head, an imagined conflict, once removed from her everyday life – until it isn’t. At one point, Pat recites the names of the dead hunger strikers. It becomes a sort of incantation, as if she’s willing them back to life, as she seems to will her brother – one of the 1916 dead – back to life. She is of the generation that mourn for a lost republic, and seek to transfer the legacy through stories.
Then there’s the next generation, Quinn and Mary, who have fought and lost in the Troubles respectively. By 1981, the deadliest years of the conflict were over, and it moved more into a political sphere, not that anyone could have known this, and The Ferryman suggests a world just on the verge of self-destruction. Butterworth takes us out of the familiar landscape of dramatizing the Troubles, portraying the rural not the urban. And yet, a flag of the Irish Confederacy hangs on the wall, and the house itself has been passed down through the generations just like the mantle of Irish Republicanism. The generation that has a stake in the bitter, greyer war of the moment is stuck somewhere between the past and the present – an idea Butterworth transposes into the human relationships.
Further down, there’s the kids. They literally stop the tradition in its tracks, switching the folk playing from the radio to the Undertones, going absolutely bat-shit mental, bouncing around the kitchen. The first part of the third act is essentially a portrait of a radicalised youth, Shane Corcoran – a boy who has already been witness to terrible things in the name of Irish Republicanism, and walks around with his trophies. He either chooses not to think about what actually happens to someone the ‘RA’ torture, or he doesn’t care. He’s been groomed by Muldoon – and IRA man from Derry, who has given him his watch, and he wears a chain from a ‘disappeared’ around his neck. It’s easy to sort of tut him, and see him as wasted potential, but I think The Ferryman frames him as a victim of abuse, certainly when Shane re-enters at the end of the play, you get the sense that he has very little agency in the whole enterprise.
My eye was repeatedly drawn by Genevieve O’Reilly, who can say as much in a glance as she can in a monologue. During the dinner scene, I was paying more attention to who she was looking at and how than I was what was actually being said. She descends from the upstairs in her nightdress like Mary Tyrone; she’s up to something in an upstairs room that is removing herself from her family. She’s a sort of ghostly figure, internalising so much that I couldn’t not make the comparison n my head. I just wish she’d been given more to do, it’s not until the third act she gets to talk at any sort of length, or indeed seems to have any stake in the proceedings.
This surely can’t be Paddy Considine’s stage debut, right? There’s nothing in his credits and nothing I could find on google, but the man makes it look so easy. There’s nothing showy about the performance, and he portrays Quinn largely as a romantic until the very final seconds (trying to avoid spoilers) which makes what he does all the more shocking. If this really is his stage debut then we’ve been missing out.
Also, there’s some properly excellent child acting in this one. I’ve no idea which guy played Declan Corcoran the night I saw it (the last preview) but he was genuinely hysterical. “How do you know the Elephant Man is a Protestant? … Because he fucking looks like one” being just one of his several great lines. And is this the year of babies on stage or something? First there was the baby in Consent, and now there’s another here. He even gurgled on cue.
If anything, The Ferryman might be a little too beautifully constructed. Excepting the very last seconds, I had sussed most of the final act well ahead of time. It seems very classical in its structure, perhaps it has to be when there’s that much going on. But I like things that seems more unpredictable, when the final coup is not so much a shock as in keeping with the style of the piece.
I think I admired the play more than I liked it, for the depth of its thoughts rather than an emotional suckerpunch – but that was certainly a minority view at the theatre where people flung themselves to their feet in approval. I think I’m still very much on an Angels hangover, so I’m sorely tempted to go back when it transfers with a clearer head.
Photo by Johan Persson.