Royal Court Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
Gielgud Theatre, West End, London – 20 June-7 October 2017
IRELAND OF THE SORROWS: THE KIDS, THE CRAIC AND THE KILLING… It is 1982 in County Armagh. Not a good time to be Irish, not there. Not with internees still in the H blocks and ten recent deaths on hunger strike. The family farm kitchen (Rob Howell’s design so complete you could almost run up the creaky staircase to bed) is getting ready for the comradeship and craic of harvest day.
For half an hour the worst that happens is that the fatted goose escapes, Auntie Pat pours cold water on Uncle Pat’s favourite story, and young Oisin gets teased and wrecks his newspaper kite. But two bus rides away in Derry, impassive before a scrawled-wall curtain, we have seen hard men putting the frighteners on Father Horrigan over a dark, dead secret. Which will by slow degrees, interwoven with hearteningly ordinary farmhouse chaos, raise comedy to tragedy.
For three enthralling hours, this is a hell of a piece: theatrical, engrossing, a world unfurling and reaching out hands to the heart in a dozen directions. Fizzes of humour, surprise and shock dart through it. There is immediately a lamp set on fire, a posse of small and eloquently profane children, and a real baby staring out the front rows with placid equanimity. There is a live goose and a baby rabbit hauled from the poacher’s pocket of a giant beard-draggled simpleton.
There is Quin Carney, father of an extended family with two mothers who each have hard emotional rows to hoe, Uncle Pat who thinks the answer to most things is in Virgil, sour passionate Auntie Pat who has wanted to kill Englishmen ever since 1916 and greets the voice of Thatcher on World Service with a fury burning since at Cromwell and honed by worship of Parnell and O’Connell. There are volatile teenage boys, threatening Provos , an unusual proposal of marriage, and a body in a peat bog all too recognizably preserved. There is every reason for “Aunt Maggie Far-Away” in the chimney-corner to emerge from her placid dementia from time to time with a terrible clarity of prophecy, memory, and justifiable belief in the banshee spirits who wail of death.
Jez Butterworth’s immense, ambitious new play takes us deep into that world and – as in his great JERUSALEM – roams beyond it into universal themes of history and legend, memory and love, childhood, song and poetry and national identity and the way national dreams sour to vicious partisan expediency. It is sometimes ragged, always magnificent. And – though after all that you may not be expecting this news – it is very often dryly, shockingly, tenderly funny. Especially in the superbly directed posse of children and teenage scenes.
Spoilers of plot – or even explaining too soon who is who – would be unforgivable. But know that the performances in Sam Mendes’ production well match up to the material: there is an extraordinary delicacy in the way that apparently comic figures become importantly tragic: not least Dearbhla Molloy’s satirical Pat and John Hodgkinson’s heartbreaking Tom Kettle , a half-witted English foundling drawn into the farm thirty years ago. Notable too are Paddy Considine as Quinn, Tom Glynn-Carney as the half-childish teenage recruit, and Laura Donnelly’s restrained, enduring Caitlin.
And for evocation of the sheer dominant cold-bastard, smart-jacketed IRA commanders of that terrible era, Turlough Convery sends shivers up your spine. The dénouement, half-expected, still shocks.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 20 May. Sold out, but West End transfer in June.