Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ Sets a Gold Standard for Broadway Plays
Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ is a three hour-plus epic about a turmoil-beset Catholic family during the Northern Irish ‘Troubles.’ It’s a funny, raucous, moving tour de force.
To be clear: Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman is a rollicking, moving, enveloping masterpiece, an emphatic herald of the strength and power of original playwriting on Broadway. It is deserving of every single award it won in London prior to coming to New York, and every award it should deservedly win while it is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where it opened Sunday night.
Do whatever you can to see it; much-loved relations, prepare to be sold. Rarely is theater so beautifully written, brilliantly acted and directed, and impressively mounted.
There. Get the message?
Directed by Sam Mendes, it is almost three and a half hours long. It doesn’t feel like it. The Ferryman is a feast of dramatic forms and shapes, containing song, dance, plot, vivid action, thrilling speech, violence, poetry. It is earthy, real, brutal, and it is airy, sometimes abstract, flirting with metaphor, myth, and symbols. It is as polyphonous as Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009).
It is the late summer of 1981, and first we are on a graffiti-covered street corner in Derry, where some grave news is being imparted to a shady priest, Father Horrigan, played by Charles Dale.
That graffiti includes the word “Bobby,” for Bobby Sands, one of the IRA hunger strikers in the “H” blocks of the Maze Prison whose campaign for recognition as political prisoners became one of the earliest defining confrontations of Margaret Thatcher’s early years as British prime minister.
The play begins five months into their hunger strike. Nine prisoners have already died, and while the main setting of the Carney family farm feels a long way from the Troubles, it is not: Its discontents are gathering to invade, and brutally so.
And what a family this is. Butterworth (who previously worked with Mendes on the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre) is a master of making us think one thing only for something else to be true—and this goes for what we assume the family dynamics are in the Carney farmhouse, where it is harvest time and the play thrums with this time of plenty, hearth, home, and celebration, and its very dark flip side.
At the family’s heart, or so we are led to think, are Caitlin Carney (the magnificent Laura Donnelly, Butterworth’s real-life partner), and Quinn Carney (a precise-thinking, protective patriarch, not brooding but ready to fight, played by Paddy Considine).
The play reveals itself in tricksy increments, including just who is who in this busy, loud house. Spoilers may be available online but not here. The play opens with Caitlin and Quinn playing a very sexy, blindfold, drink-fueled game of the popular table-game Connect Four and ends with a declaration from Donnelly of a very complex, heartbreaking kind.
It was the disappearance and murder of Donnelly’s own uncle during the Troubles that informs one of the play’s central storylines. While the Maze hunger strikers are seen as heroes, the play interrogates the violence done by Republicans to Republicans suspected of informing to the British, however flimsy the evidence. A brutal death or disappearance served as a warning if nothing else.
The discovery of the body of Quinn’s brother Seamus, murdered in a similar way to Donnelly’s uncle, is the play’s dark springboard, although even without it the Carney house is full of intrigue, passion, history, and incident. A cavalcade of bright-eyed, anarchic, funny, intelligent, occasionally profane children appear, including on the night this critic saw it, a real-life, utterly cute, incredibly well-behaved baby played by cast newcomer Theo Ward Dunsmore.
The sighting of him isn’t the first surprised cooing we are provoked into: Just wait for the cute rabbits, and even—a little more menacingly—a live goose.
How many more members of this family can there be, you wonder, as the children run around and older relations materialize from behind curtains. Who is with who, whose baby is that, and why is one of the apparent sons, Oisin, pronounced “Osheen” (Rob Malone), so upset and damaged?
A giant Englishman, Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards), carries bunnies in his pockets and later cradles a live goose. He speaks an antic, precise language of puzzles, like the Fool in Lear, and seems to have the sweetest of intent.
But think Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a “simple” man in the vernacular of the time, like Tom, who is an object of suspicion because of his English accent. He looks like he couldn’t be an aggressor but is in the wrong place at a very wrong time.
In a chair sits Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), who is mostly lost to some kind of catatonia and then sometimes returns to speak of the family’s past.
One of the play’s most stunning sequences sees Maggie return to the land of the living to tell the youngest female children about a lost love and much more besides, including prophesying the imminent arrival of an army of mythic, or very real, banshees at the family’s door.
Aunt Pat (the guttural and imposing Dearbhla Molloy) is a more caustic, dark presence under the same roof, the strongest voice inside the house in favor of violent Irish Republican struggle, and who revels in imagining murdering Thatcher in person. When she meets the black-clad thug Muldoon (Stuart Graham), who is much more than a thug and more a Republican kingpin and enforcer, she shakes his hand warmly.
Finally, she has a kindred spirit, and it is one of the play’s few weaknesses that her character is given proper prominence and then becomes not even peripheral.
The play is not an advertising pamphlet for Irish Republicanism. Quinn was once a Republican foot soldier, jailed alongside Muldoon. He is done with the violence, but Muldoon/the IRA won’t let him or his family be, particularly with the discovery of Seamus’ body and what Quinn will and won’t say publicly about that.
What perilous position does Quinn’s desire for justice for his brother, and his determination to live detached from the violence, leave him and his family in?
A fiery scene involving the young men in the cast lays out these divisions of terrorist involvement and aspiration for young men in Republican households of the time (and, note, the play does not feature “the other side” of Protestants/Unionism).
The strutting Carney cousin Shane Corcoran (a sexy, menacing, and finally running-on-empty Tom Glynn-Carney) wants to be at the service of Muldoon and rails at the brutality of the occupying British forces in Derry humiliating and threatening him and his mates behind the bingo hall.
But Quinn’s son, Michael (Fra Fee), like his father wants nothing to do with the violence and also sees the likelihood of the impulsive, frequently drunk Shane being more of a liability to himself and others, rather than an effective lieutenant. But even as these intense discussions and confrontations unfold, there is humor.
See young Declan (Michael Quinton McArthur), ribbing brother Diarmid (Conor MacNeill) for being unable to finish a story and imagining how that would be if he were screwing up the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Watch the Irish dancing, where the entire family becomes a young and old lifting, swooshing, bouncing riot, and then that segueing to furious thrashing of the contemporary Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” which serves as an angrily physical release of tension, particularly for Caitlin.
But also observe the characters who are not dancing. Watch for Mary Carney (Genevieve O’Reilly), who is so important in this house but also always shrinking backward to the nearest wall, dressed in loose white and an onlooker, has become a displaced ghost at her own feast. The personal troubles within the play are as significant for this family as the political.
The genial Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) drinks and chivvies the family along, and also provides the context for the play’s title, which references the ferryman, Charon, in Virgil’s The Aeneid, whom Aeneas, the hero, observes transporting the souls of the newly dead. (Given the play’s musical roster, it also reminded this critic of Chris de Burgh’s first U.K. hit, “Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” released in 1982, the year after the play is set.)
It should be noted that not all responses to The Ferryman have been as complimentary as this review. Sean O’Hagan, writing last year in the U.K. Observer, did not criticize Butterworth, an Englishman, for having the temerity to tackle the Troubles as subject matter but denounced what he saw as an insulting gallery of heavy-drinking, believing-in-fairy Irish stereotypes.
“What makes me most uneasy about The Ferryman,” O’Hagan wrote in his powerfully argued piece, “is the differences the play unconsciously highlights between Irish and English cultural sensibilities, between the Irish people’s idea of themselves and the English idea of them.”
As for O’Hagan, when watching The Ferryman, one’s response may be keenly governed by where you are from, and if you were more viscerally connected and acquainted with this era of Northern Irish history than the average Broadway theatergoer.
“One wonders,” O’Hagan writes, “how the play would be received by an audience in Dublin or Galway, or, more to the point, Armagh, Belfast or Derry.”
For this critic, the play as performed on Broadway in 2018 is rich, and so full of textured, watchable characters telling stories of modern times and times of yore, that one leaves the play wishing either to watch hours more of it or hope it births a sequel and movie.
The characters read as characters, not as stereotypes, their “Irishness” not reduced to a set of hoary cultural markers. One wants to know the characters more at the end; indeed, we have barely begun to know them. What one does know of them invites further intimacy and inquiry.
If the banshees in whatever form they take are coming, as Aunt Maggie says, we want to see if and how the Carney family confronts them, survives them, and keeps revealing its unfolding story.
The Ferryman is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York City, booking through Feb. 17, 2019.