Seeing things more than once is always a risk. Whatever you may have fallen in love with on the first viewing might have totally evaporated, or it might have become richer, and deepened. Like when you really balls up the first pancake but the rest are GREAT. Such was the case with these two.
I first saw The Ferryman the day before its press night at the Royal Court last year, in the middle of an Angels in America hangover. It was not the right play for me to see at that moment, and consequently I found myself totally clueless as to why this piece, which I had not disliked but which had left me cold, was being hailed as a masterpiece. I grumbled about it for a while but didn’t particularly care. I’d seen bits in it that I admired, and I certainly thought I had an understanding of the play. Then, when Jez Butterworth won an Evening Standard award and basically said that he’d written it for Laura Donnelly, I wondered if I’d got things a bit wrong.
I’d presumed the play was about Quinn Carney, first played by Paddy Considine, and that it was him that we were following over those 24 hours as the past crawls back into that farmhouse. NOPE. It’s about Caitlin Carney, Butterworth was basically saying. So, I decided to read the text, which I had not yet done, and lo and behold – Butterworth was right about his own play! It was about Caitlin Carney! Everything fell into place upon reading it, things I had felt were contrived in that early performance were totally seamless in the text. My understanding of the piece was based on totally false assumptions.
So I had to see it again.
It was in its last few weeks in the West End, with a third cast led by Rosalie Craig, and I was on the front row (I’d been in the circle at the Royal Court.) Everything felt more assured – as you would expect with 400-odd performances under your belt. Craig and Owen McDonnell – who has taken over as Quinn – were giving genuinely brilliant performances that were noticeably different to the originals; there was no carbon-copying. Craig certainly made me see it as Caitlin’s play, she holds the stage and you’re aware of her presence more assuredly, I think. Also, McDonnell never seeks to dominate the play; he’s very much the patriarch but his absences don’t feel like you’re waiting for the paly to start again.
It becomes clearer as a collage of experiences of The Troubles; I was more aware of the clash of generations, and how that translates to different experiences of violence, the shades of ambiguity that are clearer to some but not to others. The way that absolutism in politics is possibly the exact same principle that governs tragedy in drama – the idea that there is no other way to do things. Violence is the necessary act, but it is one that people can – and will – always resort to.
The ending, that spike of violent rage in that rural hub of domesticity felt like the only logical outcome for those people. I bought it all. And the place went nuts afterwards, as it had at the Royal Court – the difference was, this time I understood why. It’s still not my favourite play in the world but bloody hell it’s a good one.
I think it also helped that I hadn’t seen Angels in America three days before.
The Inheritance – or, as I like to think of it, a succession of cardigans.
The more I think about it, and I’ve thought about it a lot, I come to think that The Inheritance is one of, if not the most significant play premiered in my lifetime. Seeing it on that first two-play day felt like being there at the birth of something that would become far bigger than itself, seeing it on its last two-play day (before its West End transfer this autumn) felt like a celebration of what the piece is now recognised as. That first audience were taking a risk (“Only agents and sadists go to first previews.”) and the second knew they were at a hit.
That cast looked like they were having an absolute blast. There were ad libs and gestures that had definitely not been there at the start of the run, and were probably not there at any other performance, thinking particularly about Eric’s comment about “Windsor Castle.”
The actors have only got better, a level of assurance that comes with a long run, and – presumably – by being in a hit has made those characters gleam on that stage. Even the smaller parts feel mined for detail. And bloody hell were they living it on that final day. I hope there were ample supplies of water backstage to keep them hydrated because they spent most of it crying. Samuel H. Levine was AUDIBLY SOBBING as John Benjamin Hickey and Paul Hilton said the final words of the play. Andrew Burnap has only made Toby Darling more seductive, and he makes that character’s trajectory look so effortless. And Kyle Soller, I want him to be in everything, but I also want him to play this role forever, so I can keep watching him make ordinariness look so extraordinary.
The text has changed too; notably the Margaret scene in part two. On first viewing, she had an enormous monologue, that I’d heard Vanessa Redgrave had been struggling with. She also looked quite frail – all of that was gone. The moment she stepped onto the stage you were in no doubt she was in control. She looked physically strong, and none of those lines were escaping from her. I actually thought – oh yeah, this is why she’s regarded as one of the best actors of her generation. The monologue has been reshaped; she does a spiel, and then it is picked up by another actor for a sentence, and then she carries on. Because the play’s reality builds and melts so quickly, it works beautifully, and there’s a stronger performance as a result.
I recognised some more of the references, having now read both the play and (at the time) part of Maurice, I saw where Lopez had drawn particular characters and plot points from when it wasn’t directly from Howards End – and the couple of overlaps with Angels in America (yes, that blog post is coming.) And the skill of the direction, realising just how much Stephen Daldry has done with a difficult text. The subtleties of it, like when Morgan rests his hand on Leo’s shoulder as he says “we shall find each other again.” The image of Margaret saying hr last lines, sat on the edge of the stage as the men sit watching her – with tears pouring down their faces – will never go.
And that curtain call – holy shit. Not in 5 trips to see Angels in America have I seen a standing ovation like it. It was overwhelming, so loud, so celebratory. They came back to take multiple bows, and then people started to stamp, you could hear the stamping sound through the Young Vic (which Redgrave seemed to take particular delight in.) Matthew Lopez took a bow. It was an extraordinary response, one of those theatre-as-spiritual-experience moments.
I just love it so much.
The Ferryman has closed now, so I’m glad I got to see it as it concluded. I will do terrible things to see The Inheritance multiple times in the West End – but II know it won’t be the same. But that’s half the fun of it.
The Ferryman photo by Johan Persson.
The Inheritance photo by Simon Annand.