The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s sweeping, granular drama of Ireland’s period of violent nationalism known as the Troubles, zooms in on one large family. The Carneys have troubles of their own but love to spare. Over just a few days – harvest festival time at their farm – three generations play out the culture and politics of the nation’s epic 20th-century struggles. Brilliantly acted under the sure baton of director Sam Mendes, this beautifully written tragedy strikes gold on every level. It reminds us of theater’s power to show us who we are – and who we can, and cannot, be.
It’s 1981, but Quinn Carney’s (Paddy Considine, very impressive in his stage debut) family has been part of Ireland’s struggle for independence since before the Easter Rising of 1916. The play doesn’t take sides. Its sympathies lie with the human beings – mild or hotheaded, sharp-witted or dull – who take part, wittingly or not.
A prologue finds us by a wall decked with political graffiti. Two IRA toughs and their boss, the steely and suave Muldoon (Stuart Graham), are inducing mild-manned Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) to spy on the brother of a onetime operative who is now deceased. Seamus Carney’s body has been discovered after after lying preserved in a peat bog by the Northern Ireland border for a decade.
Word of the IRA’s involvement in that murder could foul up a delicate negotiation. So Muldoon is dispatching the priest to influence the Carneys to keep their reactions quiet when they hear the sad news. The implied threat of violence then hangs over the family through this whole twisted story of secrets, thwarted love, pride, youthful arrogant passions, and deathly grudges nursed until old age – right up to the paroxysm of the final sequence.
Yet, as if magically, love and harmony persist in the farmhouse. Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert) regales the family with pointless stories of the old days and lengthy quotations from the classics. The “wee-uns” revel in the routines of the farming life, uncaring that the poor-quality grains that support their family are fit only for feeding livestock. The teenage boys seem happy with farm work; this is no hackneyed drama about a younger generation leaving behind the old ways, at least not in the expected way.
As Butterworth is weaving a crowded tapestry with room for all strains of human nature, he is also playing a grand game of sleight-of-hand all through the first act. Immediately after the chilling prologue, we find Quinn and Caitlin Carney playing an early-morning game of Connect Four at the kitchen table, dancing and dreaming in designer Rob Howell’s beautifully detailed, almost immersive set. By ones and twos, family members emerge from upstairs to greet the day of the harvest celebration, for which a special goose has been primed. Then one more entrance bursts a fundamental assumption we’ve been led to make. And therein hangs much of the tale.
The Carneys are a colorful clan indeed. Aunt Patricia (Deearbhla Molloy), the eldest, soaked in a bitterness we later come to understand, spits venom at Margaret Thatcher’s voice on the radio. By contrast, Aunt Maggie (Fionnula Flanagan) sits blank-faced and unmoving amid the morning clatter, seemingly catatonic. But when she snaps out of her fog of dementia the family leaps to engage with her, including Quinn’s three little girls.
In one spellbinding (and funny) scene, Maggie comes to life long enough to tell the girls their fortunes and spin yarns of Irish fairy folklore and family legend. (Longing to see a production where children curse as vigorously as their elders? The Ferryman‘s your play.) Maggie brings the gods and ancient peoples of Irish myth to life in a garbled tale of a legendary battle. Later she interpolates mythic creatures into a childhood memory of her own: shockingly real but also thick with banshees, it shines essential light on the Carneys’ own history.
The first thing we hear from old Aunt Maggie is a passage from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child.” Itself rooted in the late-19th-century literary revival/recreation of Irish myth, the poem bends our attention toward the youngest generation. Children are fundamental to the play – there are four of them, plus a baby. As in the poet’s fairy tale, they are under threat – as much so, we fear, as the adults.
Much of the third act concerns the cusp of childhood and maturity. One of the youths, fiery-proud that Muldoon has recruited him for the revolutionary cause, viciously teases his more pacifistic cousin – only to have the tables turned on him brilliantly. Another theme, love decayed, underlies a heartbreaking delineation of a withered marriage. At the opposite pole of the courtship process, a love match is proposed that we know can never be – another superbly staged scene. To this, a shy teenager responds to disastrous effect – a tragic turn that is itself only a warmup.
Before all that, Tom Kettle (the excellent Justin Edwards), an intellectually disabled, English-born handyman who’s been with the family since childhood, recites lines from the poem at the dinner table. “The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb,” wrote Sir Walter Raleigh in “The Silent Lover.” Tom is trying to reach his own potential, not just by memorizing a poem but by delving into the meaning, applying “the deep are dumb” to himself. When he goes deep into himself and emerges anything but dumb, his triumph is also a crushing defeat.
The deep may often be dumb, but not so with the play; both wordy and deep, it leaps brightly into the sunshine carrying the bloody torch of Irish drama, the inheritance of Synge, Wilde, O’Casey. It’s an achievement all the more remarkable since Butterworth is English, not Irish. My ear’s even more foreign, but I’ve studied Irish culture for many years and I think the Irish Times was right to write that “there is not a single false note in the dialogue.”
There are some false notes in the accents, some of which waver like the flickering candles in the farmhouse. But that detracts scarcely at all from this marvelous production. That’s thanks in part to some cast members who have transferred from the multi-award-winning London staging, including the marvelous Laura Donnelly as Caitlin and Rob Malone as her son Oisin.
Mendes’ sharp-edged but bighearted direction aided by a superb creative team leads The Ferryman to the pinnacle of the Broadway season. Visit the website for tickets or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400.