How does one disentangle oneself from a clandestine tribe that has no legitimacy? A tribe who bonds over shared bloodshed, brutality, and murder to achieve a political purpose? Jez Butterworth’s masterpiece The Ferryman, superbly directed by Sam Mendes, has transferred to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York from its run in London. This smashing production confronts important themes about politics and violence for our times, for all times.
The Ferryman opens up a series of conundrums. First, is it possible to turn away from violence without completely working through one’s past bloody deeds? Or is an inherently violent nature prone to murderous acts when an occasion for vengeance presents itself? Second, when a loved one has gone missing, can family members truly reconcile the absence? When there is no closure to grieve because of the “ambiguous loss,” what is the impact on family relationships? Finally, is the missing one physically absent but still present? Or is their absence a haunting force, a myth that overwhelms, even if some family members never knew them?
Butterworth confronts these issues in his epic family tragedy akin to the works of classical Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides. Those ancients selected war as the backdrop to develop their dramas. And so does Butterworth. He sets this three-act play in Northern Ireland during what is referred to as the Troubles.
Through his characterizations and the references of irascible elderly Aunt Pat and sweet oldster Aunt Maggie Far Away, we learn of the Irish-British conflict. (Dearbhla Molloy as Aunt Pat and Fionnula Flanagan as Aunt Maggie Far Away are “bring-down-the-house” phenomenal as their family’s and culture’s historian and prophet respectively.) The bloody shadow of civil strife darkened the relationship between British Protestants and Irish Catholics for centuries. But by the 20th century, the Irish Catholics were taking a stand. From the Easter Rising (1916) and the partition of Northern Ireland to the Battle of Bogside (1969), the Irish fought back. With the inception of the IRA (1970), and Bloody Sunday when hundreds of young men and women joined it, British and Irish blood continued to soak the land.
As the intensity of the strife grew and bombs exploded in Belfast, killing nine in 1972, the IRA went on record. Suspected informers began to disappear. The British continued to round up and intern members of the IRA. As the prisoners held actions, the Thatcher government refused to change their status to that of political prisoners. When in 1981 the imprisoned Bobby Sands and others went on a hunger strike and died, global censure helped to turn the tide. From August to October of that year, during the action of The Ferryman, the hunger strikes ended. Not only was Bobby Sands elected to Westminster, a platform opened for the rise of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing.
From the outset Butterworth reveals the Troubles broiling beneath the land, which ironically revolts at the strife and bloodshed by spewing up one of its “disappeared.” In the prologue a priest and sinister IRA men discuss a body popping up from its clandestine burial ground in a bog. Butterworth gradually reveals the import of this pivotal moment. After the body’s public discovery, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), the IRA’s Muldoon (Stuart Graham), and the entire 14-member Carney family will never be the same.
Though the body, blackened from the peat, looks appalling, its preservation secures the man’s identity as Seamus Carney. The husband of Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) and brother of Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), had gone missing 10 years before. Mysterious reported sightings in Liverpool and elsewhere suggested Seamus had abandoned wife and family.
For the Irish Catholic Carneys living on a farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, all has remained in a suspended state. This is especially so for Caitlin, Quinn, Mary (Quinn’s wife), and Oisin (Seamus’ son). On closer inspection, the meaning of Seamus’ loss has afflicted all of the family interactions. Not only has their dynamic been upended, but Quinn’s, Mary’s, Caitlin’s guilt, regrets, and self-recriminations simmer in the ground of their souls. Closure eludes them. It’s as if the spirit of absence inhabits family members, who come and go like wraiths. In fact a malaise of absence abides between Mary and Quinn, Oisin and Caitlin, and Aunt Maggie Far Away and the family. Indeed, this raucous family talks, but their conversation rarely achieves intimacy or depth.
After the prologue, an immense bustle of activity explodes in the 14-member household. As the children rouse and come down for breakfast, happy chaos filters in with the sunlight. Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards), a Brit saved by the family as an orphan, brings his good will. Along with apples, a live bunny, and strength for the harvest, Kettle’s slow-witted presence provides assurance of a good harvest. Still, Aunt Pat carps about his being a Brit. And she warns that the family has forgotten what is important. Eventually Mary comes downstairs in her nightgown, like a ghost, then goes back upstairs. And somewhere in this foolishness, the sterling portrayals by the ensemble win our hearts. So does the live goose that Tom Kettle rescues for the dinner.
Beautifully staged with the clutter of fun and bounty of children’s drawings, the production convincing shows us a convivial, lively family. Mendes’ staging of the entrances of the numerous Carney children (including a gorgeous baby), three elders, three parents, and cousins strikes with wonder. The enthusiasm of life and togetherness bubbles with cheer.
Their joy manifests the day’s specialness. For today, the Carneys and their Corcoran cousins will harvest the fruits of their labors. Surely, they will move out to the combines with thoughts of celebration: with the killing of the goose, feasting, drinking and dancing. But before they leave, as they have breakfast, in the midst of the ebullient confusion come the prophet and historian. The truth resounds with the moral imperative that comes with the women’s presence.
Certainly, Uncle Patrick’s (Mark Lampert) jokes about Aunt Pat’s having turned from a sweet girl to a bitter witch entertain us. But the playwright has effected a greater purpose for her character. From Pat we learn of the ongoing socio-political conflict in Northern Ireland. And yes, Aunt Maggie’s dementia breaks our hearts. But her character carries a message. All of a sudden, as she is wont to do, she comes out of her fog and sings. She “arrives!” Next, she interacts with Uncle Pat about the harvest. Then she “disappears” in a twinkling. Her absence devastates. Her arrivals vibrate with contagious electricity. She is a will-o-the-wisp sprinkling laughter until she closes up in deadly silence.
As Maggie disappears, the children’s lively banter once more takes over. But we understand that both women serve as omens, as does Uncle Pat. Toward the end of the play, Uncle Pat delivers the final truth about the ferryman of Greek mythology, to capstone the meaning of Seamus’ loss. And Aunt Maggie sees into the spirit realm and cries out our future for all of us.
Indeed, the three elders reveal the family’s irrevocable foundations in sorrow and struggle. Through them, Butterworth most poignantly and powerfully unfolds the symbolism, beauty, and tragedy of what has been culturally and socially “disappeared.” The spiritual ethos of the Irish culture’s identity, voice, beneficence would be buried under British rule of Northern Ireland. And that rule ensures vengeful violence and murder.
Ironically, the youngest children seem dislocated from their background until Aunt Maggie reveals Aunt Pat’s miseries about the Easter Rising. The teenagers know more about the Troubles. Brooding Oisin (Rob Malone) acknowledges the struggle at the worst possible moment. When he confuses his loyalties, he reaps a horrific fate.
The climactic reckoning comes to Quinn Carney when his brother’s body emerges in a public disgrace of the IRA. Will Quinn choose to be silent to protect the IRA as he has done since his brother disappeared? Or will he take press interviews and blow the whistle on his brother’s murder? Muldoon fears the latter.
Once a member of the IRA, now a farmer, Quinn has submerged for a decade his awareness of how British rule impacts his daily life. Not until Seamus’ body with a bullet hole in the back of his head arises from the earth to confront him and Caitlin, do they move from their stasis. Ironically, Quinn regenerates the cycle of bloodshed and revenge he attempted to leave before Seamus went missing. Indeed, in a malevolent twist Muldoon provokes him to it.
Quinn (an incisive and fierce portrayal by Considine) had left off this cycle to embrace his family and his farm. As patriarch he carried on the family tradition and created a large brood with Mary, which would wall him off from the political necessities of gaining freedom. They lived with Seamus’ loss, somehow waiting in peace to learn his fate. But in Butterworth’s stark, heavily messaged tragedy, the harvest brings more than the barley. And it brings more than his brother’s body, which evidences the IRA’s handiwork on alleged traitors. For the harvest returns the bloody nature and being that Quinn Carney manifested years before. If blood will let blood, surely the deeds of the fathers come knocking on the doors of the sons and the nephews. This is a bitter harvest indeed, sown in blood with little fruit to enjoy.
The play evokes a timelessness with profoundly spiraling themes and symbolism. Mendes has shepherded the actors to terrific performances and created a potent, masterful production that must not be missed. Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Justin Edwards, Fionnula Flanagan, and Dearbhla Molloy are standouts. Michael Quinton McArthur delivers some of the funniest lines of the play with perfect timing. The ensemble also includes Dean Ashton, Fra Fee, Tom Glynn-Carney, Stuart Graham, Carla Langley, Matilda Lawler, Conor MacNeill, Willow McCarthy, Brooklyn Shuck, Glenn Speers, and Niall Wright.
Kudos go to Rob Howell (Scenic & Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), Nick Powell (Sound Designer & Original Music), and the rest of the creative team.
The Ferryman runs 3 hours and 15 minutes. (There is a 15-minute intermission following Act I and a three-minute pause following Act II.) The production closes on 17 February 2019. You will not forgive yourself if you miss it.