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Reviews Published 4 May 2017

Review: The Ferryman at the Royal Court

The future is snuffed out by the past: Miriam Gillinson reviews Jez Butterworth’s epic new Irish family saga.

Miriam Gillinson
'The Ferryman' at Royal Court Theatre

‘The Ferryman’ at Royal Court Theatre

I’m acutely aware of everyone sitting near me in the audience of ‘Ferryman’, and I want to talk to every last one of them. There is something about Jez Butterworth’s great hunking slab of meat of a new play – all juicy and succulent and dripping in blood – that compels one to make human contact. I want to reach out. I want to talk. I want to know that I have been here and been a part of things.

By the end of this bang-out brilliant show – directed with verve and control by Sam Mendes – the Labour MP on my right has confessed that he misses spending Christmases at home with his family. The elegant lady on my left has told me in great detail about the nature of rigor mortis in geese (more on the geese later). I have found myself thinking about my own family, and wondering if that communal feeling of growing and changing together is perhaps now gone for good. We instinctively share stories with each other and unthinkingly become another link in Jez Butterworth’s chain, in which family, story-telling, legacy and violence are all intricately and irrevocably entwined.

It is 1981 in a rural village in Northern Ireland – although, like all great plays, ‘The Ferryman’ spirals endlessly backwards and ripples right through to the future. It is the height of the Hunger Strikes. The IRA is getting stronger and the conflict with neighbouring England is intensifying. As one teenager, buzzing on alcohol, rage and fear, later puts it: ‘This isn’t history. This is now.’ Everyone living in Northern Ireland will become part of this story – this history – whether they want to or not.

For the Carney family, some traditions are bigger than politics. The Carneys are a farming family and their history is a shared history with their land, and all who have worked that land before them. It’s Harvest Festival and the Carneys – led by Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine, on blisteringly honest form) – are preparing to welcome in the Autumn. The Carney’s will feast and drink and, as is tradition, slaughter a goose. But history has a funny way of repeating itself, and the Carney’s celebrations are interrupted by news from the past: the body of Quinn’s brother Seamus has been found in a nearby bog. His death might have something to do with the IRA, an organisation that Quinn has long since walked away from. But you can’t walk away from your past now, can you?

It takes a while for the past to catch up with the Carneys – although we feel the noose tightening with every beer downed, animal slaughtered or threat uttered. Whilst we wait for the past to creep up and wrap its arms tightly around Paddy and his family, we’re left to enjoy the present. And what a present it is! This is a family so full of life – so fun and loving and daft and plentiful – that you will ache to join them. Chances are they’d welcome you with a drink and a wink and open arms.

Rob Howell’s set is vast – a massive open cave of a family home – and yet it almost always feels crammed and fit to burst. A huge staircase winds up the right hand side of the stage. As the day begins, a constant stream of life flows, tumbles, down those stairs. Endless girls scamper down and into the kitchen, the heart of this home. Another girl bounds down with a baby (a real baby! Here! Now!). Uncle Pat (Des McAleer – a total joy) arrives with a jaunt, a twinkle and a story – always a story. Old Aunt Pat storms across to her dark spot in the corner, and the lads whirl in, out, and right back in again. Bacon fries and it smells so good. The sun rises and warms the kitchen. The baby smiles and charms us all and we are enchanted and embraced by all this life on stage.  

The calm at the centre of this family storm is Quinn (Considine) and the beautiful Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), who turned up ten years ago following the death of her husband Seamus, Quinn’s brother. It is obvious – as we watch Quinn and Caitlin dance and drink and laugh together – that these two are in love. Considine and Donnelly share an easy chemistry with each other and their scenes seem to exist in a separate, beautiful and hopeful present tense. On the outskirts of it all hovers Quinn’s wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), who spends a lot of time ill and hidden away upstairs, unable to find a way back into the family life she once created.

Everyone is called ‘Uncle’ this or ‘Aunt’ that and – initially – one desperately tries to connect the family dots. But Butterworth has made this task purposefully tricky. There’s even an Aunt Pat and an Uncle Pat, just to make things even more confusing. At a certain point, we just think – fuck it! They’re all family. That will have to do.

At its heart, ‘The Ferryman’ is an impassioned search for a true and lasting definition of ‘family’.  Butterworth tests and tweaks this definition at every turn. Early on, as we watch Quinn and Caitlin talk and laugh together, it is very easy to believe that they are husband and wife. They seem so completely in tune, and so utterly entwined in each other’s ‘present’. It is only when wife Mary appears that we realise that Quinn and Caitlin do not officially ‘belong’ to each other. But which connection means more? Which love is stronger? Which loyalty runs deeper?

Clashing loyalties run like a torrential river through this play, threatening to tear the family in two (a poem, later recited around the family table, compares ‘passion’ with ‘floods and streams’.) Family and national loyalties smash up against each other, eroding and changing the shape of each other for good. Where do these characters’ loyalties now lie? Should they remain faithful to a past definition of family and country, or embrace a new, different but united front?

As these loyalties are teased and tested under one family roof, the drink flows – and flows – and myths are told and retold, stories remembered, misremembered and made up anew. Impossible and awful cycles repeat themselves. Characters drink and rage and lash out each other, and then drink again in an attempt to forget their actions. Boys tell bloody stories about the past in an attempt to embolden themselves for their future. Men lash out instinctively – but only in order to protect the ones that they love.

Passion and violence, love and death, smash up against each other, again and again. In a few rare and hopeful scenes, it feels like love might win. ‘Aunt Maggie Far Away’ escapes her amnesia for long enough to remember the love of her life, Francis Mallone, and even all these years, the love that Maggie feels for Francis feels amazingly alive and strong. Quinn and Caitlin stop the rush of history for just one second and share a stolen kiss. And the family dance together – first to a traditional Irish song and then to a blaring pop song, which makes them all feel very different, urgent emotions. But then the music stops and the past, and all the violence entwined within it, rears up again. Aunt Pat switches off the music and lists the name of the Irish men who have died in the Hunger Strikes, ending with the most recent name – Bobby Sands. Everyone is shamed into silence. And the future that everyone seems to so desperately crave is, once again, snuffed out by the past.

The family is broken, the audience around me has vanished, and I am left alone with my grief.

The Ferryman is on at the Royal Court until 20th May, when it transfers to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre. More info here.

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Miriam Gillinson

Miriam writes theatre reviews for Time Out, The Ham & High and her own blog, Sketches on Theatre. She writes about children's theatre for the Guardian and is a reader for Sonia Friedman Productions, United Agents, the Bruntwood prize and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

Review: The Ferryman at the Royal Court Show Info


Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Jez Butterworth

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