Reviewed by James Karas
The Ferryman is theatre on a grand scale. English playwright Jez Butterworth manages to deal with national issues and personal histories seamlessly, brilliantly and deftly so as to produce a superb play. The play is about the execution of a man that Butterworth expands into almost all the history of the occupation of Ireland by the English and especially the Time of Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and later It is also about the history of a large family which stands for the tragedy of individuals and the story of Northern Ireland.
All of this takes place in about a day in the kitchen of the Carney family on a farm in County Armagh in Northern Ireland at the end of August, 1981.
The play opens dramatically. The well-preserved body of a man is found in bog water. It is that of Seamus Carney who was shot in the back of the head in 1971. Two tough guys interrogate Father Horrigan and the third, Muldoon, demands that the priest tell him what Seamus’s brother reveals to the priest during confession.
Thus begins the multi-layered and complex saga of the relations between England and the IRA and the story of the large Carney family that is caught in the middle. One may well say that the story really began with the crime of the invasion of Ireland by the English many centuries ago. The Irish at first and then the Catholics of Northern Ireland demanded some rights. The English responded with suppression, intimidation, imprisonment, torture and shooting.
The IRA responded with hunger strikes, terrorism and murder. The murders are not confined to the English alone. They murder their own if they suspect them of disloyalty or treachery. Combined with religious intolerance, the situation provides a perfect definition of barbarism.
Quinn (Will Houston) and Mary (Catherine McCormack) Carney have seven children ranging in ages from a few months to sixteen years. They also have the garrulous Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who is usually very far away but does have moments of lucidity and the tough and crotchety Aunt Patricia (Dearbhila Molloy).
Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene), the widow of Seamus and the sister-in-law of Quinn, plays a central role in the play. She has to deal with the lies about the death of her husband, her son, her relationship with Quinn and her intuitive intelligence about the whole situation.
It is the day of harvest and the Carneys and the young Corcorans are eating, laughing and preparing for the joyous harvest. At the same time the news of the discovery of Seamus’s body and the possible consequences for the family and the IRA are being revealed. The complex facts unfold slowly, dramatically, interspersed with humour, dancing and singing. There are intricate issues of morality, of pride, of freedom, of murder and of simple lying. The murderous Muldoon (Stuart Graham), arrogant, cold-blooded, a man who is possessed by the cause he represents and would kill without mercy, appears again.
The charade of lies is slowly discarded until the play comes to an intensely dramatic end that leaves you stunned and breathless.
There are times when most of the large cast of twenty-two actors is on stage which, except for the first scene, is the Carney’s kitchen. Director Sam Mendes has no difficulty handling the crowd. Better still his deft directing brings out all the drama, humour and tragedy of the personal and national tragedies to the fore.
The ensemble and individual acting never fall below superb. Sarah Greene and Will Houston are outstanding in their portrayal of the people most deeply affected by the surfacing of Seamus’s body. Their relationship is a key element in the play and Greene outshines all the others.
The ferryman of the title refers to the boatman of classical mythology who transports the souls of the dead across the River Styx to Hades. The image adds to the epic proportion of the play and the grandness of the themes that it deals with. Indeed the plot unfolds like a Homeric epic and The Ferryman provides a great night at the theatre.
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth continues until May 19, 2018 (and its run may well be extended) at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave. London, England.