Jez Butterworth’s rolling, rumbling thunderstorm of a play, The Ferryman, enlists pretty much every Irish cultural cliché with such unalloyed pleasure and abandon that it’s hard not to exit the theater shaken but forgiving after more than three hours of storytelling joy and drama. Not to mention emotionally drained. Virgil and The Aeneid are invoked (lest we forget for one moment we are in a lubricated Irishman’s thrall), feet stomp, and banshees murmur and wail.
In an era of 90-minute exercises in glibness, The Ferryman is a precious return to something we might have thought was lost, especially on Broadway: a shared experience – over three acts, with 22 characters, a baby, a goose and a bunny – whose impact has nothing to do with Hollywood-emulating glitter and flash.
Among the astonishments of Sam Mendes’ meticulously choreographed production is the play’s power to connect on the most personal level. For me, it’s the banshees, whose feral hum is often heard before overtaking us during the inevitable yet shockingly violent climax. A line popped out from a distant corner of my memory, from William Hanley’s 1964 drama Slow Dance on the Killing Ground. In a crummy Brooklyn bodega, a young African American man on the lam encounters a desperate white woman. “There is a passion loose in the world,” he tells her, “a passion for the sounds of violence. Listen and you’ll hear it. You know what that is? That’s the Yahoos screaming for blood.”
You don’t forget a line like that. Especially when the Yahoos can be heard threatening a family on Quinn Carney’s Armagh farm in Northern Ireland in 1981. Quinn (Paddy Considine) had a brother Seamus, missing since New Year’s Day 1972. Since then, Seamus’s wife Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and their son Oisin (Rob Malone), now an awkward teen, have been living with Quinn’s family, including his neurasthenic wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) and their seven children, including a newborn.
Under the same roof are an Uncle and Aunt, both named Pat (Mark Lambert and Dearbhla Molloy), him the aforementioned Virgilphile, her a fire-breathing Irish republican and Thatcher hater. Another aunt, wheelchair-bound Maggie Far Away (Fionulla Flanagan), occasionally snaps out of her comatose state to delight the children with family tales and prophecies. There’s also Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards), a gentle giant who might have stepped over from an early Sam Shepard play. Tom is skilled at goose wrangling and producing rabbits and apples from his voluminous, ratty overcoat. Significantly, he is British.
It’s harvest time, when all hands are on board to bring in the grain crop, including the Corcoran cousins from the city. There is the promise of an annual feast when the hard work is finished. Not far away is the notorious Maze Prison, where Provisional IRA leader Bobby Sands and nine others are starving themselves to death to protest British rule.
In a brief prologue, the Carney’s priest (Charles Dale) is summoned north to Derry, where IRA operatives explain that Seamus’ body has been discovered in a bog, preserved, with a bullet hole through his skull. They want Father Horrigan’s cooperation in informing Caitlin and the others of the find and in ensuring that the Carneys will support the obvious lie that the IRA had nothing to do with Seamus’ murder. (Watching this menacing interaction, it was impossible not to think of Jamal Khashoggi.)
Butterworth’s inspiration for The Ferryman (the title is a reference to Virgil) is the true story of Donnelly’s uncle, murdered in 1981 by the IRA and later found in a bog. Seamus and Quinn had been IRA soldiers until Quinn, numbed by the bloodshed, retreated to his farm, likely sealing Seamus’ fate as revenge. A Derry IRA officer, Muldoon (Stuart Graham), uses information about Quinn and Caitlin extorted from Father Horrigan to guarantee their cooperation.
These are the basic facts of The Ferryman. But – as anyone knows who saw Butterworth’s miraculous Jerusalem or the Twilight Zone-y three-hander The River – the writer’s gift is in spinning distinctive threads and weaving them into a shimmering, human tapestry. There will be dancing – in one supercharged sequence, Riverdance will give way to rave – and drinking (even among the youngest) as well as tall tales and heart-wrenching professions of love both expected and not. Above all, there will emerge a connectedness among these stories that is at once Irish and Greek in its conviction that a family’s specific experience of the human condition – love, birth, tragedy, death – is transferred inimitably from one generation to the next.
I haven’t conveyed how joyful, funny and moving The Ferryman is, and how seamlessly Mendes, with choreographer Scarlett Mackmin, lets these complex interactions organically unfold with palpable feeling. Nor how brilliant the cast, led by the smashing Considine and Donnelly, inhabit these roles on Rob Howell’s lived-in farmhouse set (Howell also did the character-perfect clothes), subtly illuminated in Nick Powell’s exquisite day-into-night lighting scheme. Loss and grief suffuse The Ferryman with melancholy, even as it is shot through with the overwhelming graces of empathy and life.