The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Theatre


It is August 1981, Mrs Thatcher is in Downing Street, Kim Wilde tops the pop charts, Bobby Sands and other Irish hunger strikers are dying. Jez Butterworth’s devastating new play takes us back to rural County Armagh at the height of the Irish troubles and shows with chilling clarity how violent extremism gets its claws into the lives or ordinary people and refuses to let go.

The farmhouse, the interior of which is realised beautifully in Rob Howell’s stunning set, is home to three generations of the Roman Catholic Carney family. Quinn (Paddy Considine) and his wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) have seven children, all still at home and they have also given refuge to Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), the wife of Quinn’s missing brother Seamus, and her teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone). Under the same roof are Quinn’s Uncle Patrick (Des McAleer) and his two aunts, the near senile Maggie (Brid Brennan) and the bitter and angry Pat (Dearbhia Molloy), who had been a witness to the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. The drama is triggered when the body of Seamus is found 10 years after it is assumed that he had been executed by the IRA for disloyalty.

A huge cast, many of them children, plus a baby and a rabbit, on the Royal Court’s modestly sized stage causes potential traffic jams, challenges for director Sam Mendes that could make directing a Bond film seem like a breeze. He delivers a production in which exuberant bursts of humour and life contrast with searing intimate exchanges and the spectres of violence and death are always hovering overhead. Quinn, an activist in his youth is now a family man who rebuffs IRA demands for his silence. Considine’s demeanour shows Quinn as a weary man, made so not only by ongoing Irish Republican struggles but also by keeping secret the glowing but forbidden love between himself and Caitlin. Butterworth weaves together intimate personal stories and epic political themes with consummate skill.

The IRA’s grip over the family comes from history, a sense of community and the bullying of their commander, Muldoon (Stuart Graham), who even becomes a moral guardian, displacing an enfeebled church that is personified by the weak and dishonest Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan). The play encompasses fierce ideological arguments, as between Quinn’s pacifist son Michael (Fra Fe) and a potential activist cousin Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney) and lyrical passages, such as Aunt Maggie’s memories of her lost love and Uncle Pat’s recitation from Virgil. Many lighter moments are provided by the simple-minded English-born tenant farmer Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), although Butterworth’s contrivances to make him a symbolic figure are perhaps questionable.

This almost flawless production comes straight out of theatre’s top drawer. Running at over three hours, it is far, far too short.

Performance date: 2 May 2017

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