Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.
Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.
Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.
10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.
Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.
And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.
There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.
One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.
Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.
However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them. A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.
Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music – and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.
Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.
Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.
As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.
In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.
The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1