The Ferryman review – Butterworth and Mendes deliver shattering tale of passion and violence

Royal Court, London
Paddy Considine stars as a reformed IRA activist in the Jerusalem playwright’s deeply involving and abundant new work

The combination of Jez Butterworth as writer and Sam Mendes as director has inevitably turned this play into a hot ticket. But behind the box-office glamour of a work co-produced with Sonia Friedman and already destined for the West End lies a rich, serious, deeply involving play about the shadows of the past and the power of silent love. Only in the final moments of a play that runs well over three hours did I question Butterworth’s mastery of his material.

You could say the play combines the gangland politics of his first hit, Mojo, with the rural rituals of his later work including Jerusalem. That, however, would be to do Butterworth an injustice, since there are big issues at stake. The year is 1981. The setting, except for a brief prologue, is a 50-acre farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. In the Maze prison, 10 republican prisoners die after a hunger strike. But, down on the farm, Quinn Carney, a reformed IRA activist, is celebrating the annual harvest with his extended family. Two events, however, show the inescapability of the past. One is the discovery of the body of Quinn’s brother, who disappeared 10 years earlier after Quinn’s defection from the IRA. The other is the arrival on the farm of a leading republican power figure.

Butterworth is not the first person to dramatise the intersection of politics and private life in Northern Ireland: coincidentally the same theme is explored, from a Protestant perspective, in David Ireland’s Everything Between Us, currently at London’s Finborough theatre.

But what gives Butterworth’s play such shattering force is its Hardyesque love of rural rituals and its compassionate exploration of unspoken love. At the heart of the play lies the tender relationship between Quinn, whom Paddy Considine endows with an unflinching integrity, and his brother’s wife, Caitlin, beautifully played by Laura Donnelly. The idea of secret passion extends to two aunts who, in different ways, lost their loved ones.

Haunting … Laura Donnelly as Caitlin in The Ferryman.
Beautifully played … Laura Donnelly as Caitlin in The Ferryman. Photograph: Johan Persson

It reaches its fulfilment, however, in the captivating moment when a slow-witted English factotum reads Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem The Silent Lover at the harvest home.

There are many other themes coursing through this abundant play: one, hinted at in the title with its reference to the Virgilian ferryman, Charon, is of unburied souls roaming the earth. But the power of Mendes’s terrific production, which I saw at the final preview, lies in its ability to combine scrupulous naturalism with a sense of the mysterious. Astonished gasps greet the presence of real rabbits, a goose and even a baby on stage. But one tiny moment illustrates Mendes’s microscopic approach: the way Genevieve O’Reilly, as Quinn’s ailing wife, quietly averts her gaze as Donnelly’s Caitlin bustles about their communal kitchen speaks volumes about the plight of two women in love with the same man.

Paddy Considine with Sophia Ally, Elise Alexandre and Rob Malone in The Ferryman.
Intense detail … Paddy Considine with Sophia Ally, Elise Alexandre and Rob Malone. Photograph: Johan Persson

All the performances, like Rob Howell’s set with with its antique beams and time-weathered walls, are invested with the same intense detail. Bríd Brennan as Aunt Maggie Faraway, whose name says it all, is as eloquent in her watchful silence as in her rare moment of speech. Dearbhla Molloy as Aunt Patricia, meanwhile, is filled with the inextinguishable rage of the politically militant. Des McAleer as a loquacious uncle with a love of the classics, John Hodgkinson as the lone Englishman with his own hidden desires, and Stuart Graham as the inflexible IRA leader anxious to bury the sins of the past are equally fine.

But, if Butterworth’s engrossing and haunting play tells us anything, it is that the violent past can no more be suppressed than the private passions that we are afraid to articulate.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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