Thursday, 4 January 2018

Theatre Review – The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, Gielgud Theatre, London

Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, has received excellent reviews, and articles over the Christmas period saw many selecting it as their favourite play of the year. My experience of the play was more mixed and before going into the criticisms I’ll say that the standing ovation was well earned and I cried at the emotional impact of the stunning conclusion.

I was looking forward to being transported back to Northern Ireland, where I was born and spent my childhood, expecting the play to be full of the turns of phrase and the accent I recognise and love. The first act surprised me as the colloquialisms weren’t there and the accents were a bit of a mixed bag, with some sounding authentic and some sounding a bit too ‘try hard’, while others missed the mark completely much of the time. This could mangle some of the words and I heard other audience members in the interval saying they shared my inability to hear some of the phrases, which was frustrating.

It also felt as if the play lacked the heart and soul of a writer who had actually lived through the Troubles. I have avoided writing about this experience myself as it can feel like exploiting the suffering of others for shock value, and I was only there for a year or two as the violence ignited in 1969 and 1970. Although Butterworth has part-Irish Catholic parents, he grew up in St Albans, as I read after watching the play, which explained to me why it was a Northern Ireland I didn’t recognise. The setting was also historical to him as he was born in 1969, which can be an interesting perspective, and it certainly led to him treating the themes with the objectivity and impartiality of distance.

His focus on the impact on one family of a man being ‘disappeared’ 10 years previously by the IRA opened the play up to the universal theme of the traumas and knock-on effect when someone close to us vanishes without explanation and we have no idea if they’re alive or dead. This has happened in my family so it’s a subject I related to.

The Ferryman opens with a striking prologue. A leading figure in the IRA called Muldoon is standing outside a wall in the city covered in graffiti, including the name Bobby as it’s set at the time the hunger strikers are drawing international attention to Northern Ireland and Margaret Thatcher’s government. Bobby Sands and others are dying and will be named in a kind of repeated chorus by characters throughout the play. Their story alone lends strength to the play.

In the prologue Muldoon stands waiting even before the audience is seated and he bears a striking resemblance to ‘he who must not be named’ in a similar true story about the killing of Jean McConville. Just as Jean McConville vanished and it took years for her body to be found, while rumours were deliberately circulated to suggest she was an informer who had run away with a British soldier, abandoning her family, the ghost of Seamus Carney haunts the living characters in The Ferryman. Just as the McConville family and others knew who was behind the disappearance of Jean but stayed silent for self-protection, Seamus’s brother Quinn and others know it was Muldoon but they have maintained a mafia-like omertà.

The opening works very well, with Muldoon calling the Carneys’ priest to a meeting so that he can get information about the Carney family that will help him blackmail them into silence. The body of Seamus Carney has been found in a peat bog, well preserved and with a bullet through the head, the contents of his pockets showing when he died. The sightings of Seamus after his death are clearly a cover-up and Muldoon wants no bad publicity while the sympathy of the world is with him and the hunger strikers.

The problem with this is that Muldoon has no need to get info from the priest in order to silence the Carneys. He could just threaten them in the same way he threatens the priest, by showing a picture of his sister. Killings are easy for a man with Muldoon’s power and following, so the elaborate emotional blackmail is exciting theatre but unnecessary and over-complicated in a situation where keeping quiet is the norm to protect loved ones.

Apart from the prologue the whole play is set in the main room of the Carney family farm, which works well as it’s the place where everything happens, from cooking to partying, and the preparations are in hand for a big harvest feast after the annual haymaking. This brings cousins from the city to help out, which reminded me of haymaking at farms near my grandparents’ home, and we did all get together including me at only 7, dragging bails across fields for neighbours. I don’t remember harvest feasts but it’s a good ploy to bring all the necessary characters together. The young male cousins from the city are seeing the violence of the Troubles at close quarters and are more easily recruited to help Muldoon in what they see as a war. Women were also involved in both the IRA activities and in the more peaceful activity of haymaking, and this is missing from The Ferryman. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marianne, are an example in the Jean McConville story.

Despite the strong political elements, the main story is more domestic and revolves around Seamus Carney’s widow Caitlin who has moved in with her brother-in-law Quinn and Quinn’s wife Mary while paying off the wedding ring she bought for Seamus: she’s living in a limbo unable to be certain if her husband is alive or dead. Quinn was a committed IRA member but defected, leaving the question of whether or not Seamus was killed for no fault of his own but as a punishment for his brother’s disillusionment.

One of the city cousins, Shane, has been recruited by Muldoon and tells of the punishment of a young Catholic presumably suspected of being an informer. The complexity of wrong and right is a strength of the play, with the audience’s empathy moving in different directions at different points and Muldoon at least as unlikeable as the smug Margaret Thatcher on the radio with no sympathy for the suffering of the hunger strikers. The title The Ferryman refers to the sins that cannot be forgiven and is taken from the description in Virgil’s Aeneid of the souls condemned to wander the world and not cross to the other side because of what they have done or what has happened to them in this life.

Older relatives tell stories of the history of British colonialism in Ireland, and the loss of a brother in the Easter Uprising which has left the fiery Aunt Patricia fiercely anti-English. Aunt Maggie sits in her wheelchair almost completely in her own world and incapable of communication until she suddenly emerges from time to time to tell stories of the old days and answer questions from the children who believe she can predict the future. She hears banshees that predict death, and along with a gun we know Aunt Patricia took from her dying brother, the second half of the play builds up successfully to tragedy we know will happen.

This all gives it an underlying feel similar to a Russian play, although how the gun is going to be used is not quite as predictable. In the 10 years since his brother’s death, Quinn has become close to Seamus’s widow Caitlin (although she doesn’t know for sure she’s a widow). It’s clear to the audience from the start that there’s an attraction and they seem to us to be the couple with all the children until we’re surprised by the appearance of Quinn’s actual wife. It’s very brave having so many children acting in a play and they do an impressive job.

When Quinn’s wife Mary appears occasionally down the rickety staircase, rarely changing out of her plain nightdress and complaining of a never-ending virus, it’s clear that the disappearance of Seamus has led to her losing her husband to Caitlin and she is vanishing metaphorically. She conveys this not just by her lack of interest in her appearance but also in the loss of her voice, which sounds sad and broken. Her daughter criticises her as if she’s a lazy hypochondriac constantly in bed eating biscuits, while Caitlin appears to have replaced her not only in her husband’s affections but also as the wife and mother, cooking and looking after the children.

Empathy could go in various directions in this play, and mine was up the rickety staircase with the almost invisible Mary. Her voice when she did appear, hiding her true feelings and hoping the ‘virus’ had gone once Seamus’s body was found and Caitlin could move on, was mesmerising. Although the unspoken ‘love story’ is between Caitlin and Quinn it wasn’t one I felt made me wish for it to become spoken and requited. The disappearance of Seamus has led to the destruction of the family, which doesn’t happen in one clear cut but in 10 years of uncertainty. For anyone who has a partner who vanishes inexplicably, this kind of lack of closure leads to the wasting of many years.

There are stereotypes which led to a lot of laughter in the audience, but which I didn’t find especially funny, even though this was balanced by some truly laugh-out-loud humour. The constant swearing, especially feck and shite, sounded like an episode of Father Ted, with everyone including the children speaking like Father Jack. Everybody, including the children, drank whisky throughout the play. I’m not sure if this happened in families – the whisky and swearing seemed far more than I’ve ever heard. Some lines, like ‘fuck me blue’ from the mouth of a little girl who has just been told by the soothsaying elderly aunt that she’ll have nine children, sounded like an over-dependence on swearing and adult comments in the mouths of children rather than successful comedy. But people laughed so I could be wrong!

The theme of unrequited, unspoken or lost love is central to the whole play. The priest says his sister is all he has so he’ll risk hell to break the secrecy of what he’s been told in confession. Aunt Patricia lost the brother she loved so much she followed him into ardent freedom fighting. Aunt Maggie never married because she loved a boy so much she couldn’t in all honesty commit to another – England took her first love as he needed to leave Ireland for work. Caitlin has lost Seamus who may have been killed by the IRA for no fault of his own, and her son Oisin takes his teenage anger out on her and is vulnerable to recruitment by Muldoon. Caitlin and Quinn have spent years repressing their love, while upstairs Mary is ill due to the loss of her husband’s love, losing the respect of her children at the same time.

Romantic love is made questionable by this, as are romantic ideals. Certain actions stand out as authentic, such as the sacrifice and suffering of the hunger strikers willing to die in such a horrific way. The damage inflicted by the British has led to ongoing suffering in Ireland, just as the IRA killings of Irish Catholics have led to the suffering and conflict of viewpoints shown in this play. The complexity is there, and there are no clear cut rights and wrongs. One mistake writers can make when addressing Irish themes from an outsider perspective can be to romanticise the subject, and that’s not the case here. Romanticism is all ‘bollocks’ as Quinn says to Caitlin about their own repressed love.

The acting is excellent apart from the questionable accents of some, and this could be overcome with the regular cast changes. The children are remarkable in their ability to immerse themselves in the world of the play. The risk of having so many children and even a baby on stage is great, and it amazed me that the baby was so quiet. I held my breath as one of the older children rushed up and down the rickety open-step stairway, babe in arms, in case of a fall.

There’s also a live goose and live rabbits and I felt sorry for the goose in particular, despite a note on the website that animal trainers and animal welfare experts have been used. The goose looked frightened and angry, but using a live goose  before bringing in a goose that’s strangled and hung upside down has an effect of prefiguring the violence against the powerless later.  I still wasn’t comfortable with living creatures being on stage surrounded by so much noise and fear of the audience.

If I have to pick out the acting that impressed me it was in the roles of Mary the neglected wife, Tom Kettle the gentle giant English farmhand who was found locally as a lost boy and who is at risk due to the anti-English feeling, and cousin Shane who has been recruited by Muldoon, as well as Aunt Patricia and Aunt Maggie. Muldoon also looms large, not saying much but a dominating presence as he walks into the farm and as he waits for the priest at in the prologue. There was no weak acting.

All of this leads to a play with much to admire and the critical acclaim is understandable. However, something was missing for me. The setting has been described as Hardyesque and it did strike me as similar to a setting in a DH Lawrence play rather than a farm in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The décor, the harvest feast, the dinner with everybody spontaneously bursting into various forms of Irish dancing, and the Irish folk songs sung by Aunt Maggie and Aunt Patricia were all from an imagined Ireland and a mixture of alternative history mixed with historical facts. This didn’t work for me and detracted from the good points of the play, but it all clearly works for many people, has led to it being one of the fastest booking plays of the year and an extended season. Well worth seeing and let me know what you think of it. I haven’t given everything away!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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