The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre
If nothing else time creates ghosts, and not just those belonging to the deceased. Paths not taken, the generational churn of violence and the constant re-flourishing of radicalism. All of these haunt the Carney clan, the family at the heart of Jez Butterworth’s majestic slow-burner The Ferryman.
Set against the back-drop of the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, Quinn (a stage debut-making Paddy Considine) prepares for the harvest, only for the celebrations to be interrupted by a dark reminder of his past. It’s the hoariest set-up imaginable. The genius of The Ferryman is just how much Butterworth manages to squeeze out of such an overdone structure. There are flashes of Martin McDonagh, a blatant Chekhov’s gun, verbatim passages of Virgil and a liberal nod to Of Mice and Men. And though these woven strands of family drama, Irish history and intertextuality perhaps dovetail too neatly, it’s impossible not to admire the scale of what the playwright has produced.
Some of the scenes are luminous: aunt Maggie “Faraway” regaling the children with tales of lost love and sacrifice; a band of barely grown boys trading stories late into the night, whiskey unveiling the macho fervour of extremism; a game of Connect Four that trembles with sexual tension. Then there are the times where director Sam Mendes corrals this cast of adults, animals and children into moments of unabashed warmth and joy. An Irish jig bleeds into Teenage Kicks; the morning routine takes on a Waltons-esque sweetness; long-denied lovers kiss in the light of dawn.
This, children included, is a heavy-weight ensemble. Considine – wobbly Irish accent aside – simmers throughout, a dropped shoulder turning Quinn from family man to soldier. John Hodgkinson manages to imbue his character with enough self-awareness that he avoids being a complete rip-off of Steinbeck’s Lennie. The young Tom Glynn-Carney plays his Shane as an IRA Sid Vicious, snarling and boasting like he is on the pulpit for the ‘Ra. And as Caitlin, Laura Donnelly is simply incandescent, carrying the play through its plentiful moments of wounded love and unspeakable grief. It is one of the high watermarks of the year so far, and deserves to be well-rewarded next awards season.
The Royal Court and mega-producer Sonia Friedman were keen to anoint The Ferryman with classic status from the off, the play arriving complete with a superstar director and a prepackaged West End transfer. Their confidence is well-placed, however. The Carney family will be long-remembered; a world this rich and authentic lingers too long to be forgotten.
The Ferryman is at the Royal Court Theatre from 3rd until 20th May 2017, then heads to the Gielgud Theatre from 20th June. Buy your tickets here.