Royal Court, London – until 20 May 2017
Already sold out before it had even opened and announced to be transferring to the West End in June, the combination of Jez Butterworth (Jerusalem, Mojo amongst others) and director Sam Mendes seems to have set the public imagination alight. The curious thing is why Butterworth has chosen to write about the Northern Ireland `troubles’. The past thirty years has seen a plethora of plays on the subject from Brian Friel, Marie Jones to Gary Mitchell with Martin McDonagh as surely the most controversial.
In this post-McDonagh world, Butterworth’s The Ferryman comes a loose second in terms of political bite whilst conjuring one of the most affecting portraits of `family’ in all its brawling, idiosyncratic warmth and tension. Butterworth, we know, excels in largesse and his portrait of the rural Armagh Catholic farming family – all seven of the children, aunts, uncle and additional `in-laws’ of Caitlin and her son Oisin – spills over with life, banter and above all story-telling.
As Des McAleer’s endearing Virgil reading Uncle Patrick says, what are older ones for but to pass on stories of the past to the we’ens. The Ferryman is a play of stories and mythology with Brid Brennan’s Far Away Aunt Maggie, a half smile permanently fixed, leading the fray with her summoning of the banshees and of a love never quite requited. Indeed, whilst set at harvest time – a time of feasting and fullness – The Ferryman tells a tale of unrequited love in various forms and the toll it takes on personality.
With its songs and Irish dance, tiny baby, live furry rabbit and grey goose all taking their place on stage, director Sam Mendes leaves no stone unturned in terms of appeal to audience sympathies.
It’s when Butterworth and Mendes start into the political arena that unfortunately The Ferryman comes unstuck. Butterworth’s IRA `hard man’ Muldoon is a classic stereotype whilst the climactic scene, heavily heralded by Far Away Aunt Maggie predicting she can hear the banshees coming again collapses any real pathos drawn up by Butterworth in a preceding scene where the hearts and souls of Paddy Considine’s head-of-the-family, Quinn Carney, his wife Mary and `live-in’ sister-in-law, Caitlin, are laid bare.
Since the core of The Ferryman is indeed about unquiet souls, the unburied dead and a serious consideration into the effect of Thatcher, Bobby Sands and atrocities committed by the IRA on their own, the lapse into sudden full-on melodrama doesn’t quite cut it, not for this viewer, at least.
Still, for two thirds of its two and three quarter hours (a surprising break from the Court’s usual short, sharp and snappy one hour straight through fare), The Ferryman is a loveably larger-than-life panorama that gives huge enjoyment and which will no doubt please West End audiences as much as it does the Court’s more discerning regulars.
Big-hearted and often sucking-in-breath tense, ironically one of its most affecting moments is provided by John Hodgkinson’s slow-minded English farmhand, Tom Kettle, whose declaration of love to Caitln proves a high point.
Flawed but affecting, like Jerusalem, Butterworth has pulled it off again, thanks to Mendes and Rob Howell’s superbly realistic, lived-in farmhouse parlour where all the world’s a stage…