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If you were judging the British writer Jez Butterworth on his filmography, you’d be hard pressed to find a through line that connects James Brown biopic Get on Up, sci-fi saga Edge of Tomorrow, Roman Britain-set The Last Legion and true-story political thriller Fair Game. As a playwright, however, there’s more of a discernible shape to Butterworth’s career. For one thing, he has honed over the course of several stage plays, most notably his 2008 hit Jerusalem, 2012’s The River and now The Ferryman, a uniquely modern version of the pastoral. One of the most ancient theatrical genres, the pastoral traditionally celebrates rural life and rituals, and the cohesion of families and communities. But in Butterworth’s modern pastorals — which unfold across St George’s Day celebrations in contemporary Wiltshire for Jerusalem, or an autumn grain harvest in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, circa 1981 for The Ferryman — violence, secrets and forbidden desires curdle the cream.
If ultimately the effect was largely comic with distinctly dark edges in Jerusalem (which also premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre, as did his more enigmatic, experimental work The River), in Butterworth’s powerful, already ecstatically received new work, the tone is much more squarely tragic and overtly bloody. Its engagement with professional men of violence connects it to some of Butterworth’s criminal world-set work, like his breakthrough play Mojo as well as some of the screenplays (see, for instance, Birthday Girl and Black Mass). Squint hard and you might even see a connection with his script contribution to director Sam Mendes’ last James Bond movie Spectre, and his uncredited work on Skyfall, both about a deadly if sympathetic killer confronting his past.
The teaming of Mendes and Butterworth once again, along with co-stars Laura Donnelly (The River) and the estimable film-and-television actor Paddy Considine making a rare appearance on stage, was enough to sell out the short run through May 20 of The Ferryman at the Royal Court, and a transfer to the West End has already been announced for June.
Those lucky enough to score tickets are unlikely to be disappointed, as this is a consistently absorbing, emotionally rich and beautifully executed work of theater. For some, however, the only mild reservation might be that it’s clearly a work that already has crowned itself Serious Theater about Big Themes, pandering to expectations with show-stopping monologues, adorably potty-mouthed pre-pubescent kids and cuddly live animals onstage — all recalling tropes Butterworth has deployed before, especially in Jerusalem. It’s not that he’s repeating himself, especially since The Ferryman explores a historical and geographical milieu into which he hasn’t previously ventured, but to an extent if feels like a brand is being built. Even so, I’d buy shares in it, as it went down like gangbusters with the press-night audience.
A brief prologue set in Derry (aka Londonderry to Protestants) establishes a few characters and facts — it’s important to know that this is the time when IRA men were starving themselves to death in protest while Maggie Thatcher refused to recognize them as political prisoners. The rest of the action moves to the farmhouse where the abundant Carney family resides. As Quinn Carney (Considine) banters drunkenly with Caitlin Carney (Donnelly) and the two share an ominously blindfolded dance to The Rolling Stones, little do they suspect that the events that day will change everything.
Many of the grown-ups are not quite what they seem. Quinn may appear to be an affable paterfamilias, but he was once a high-ranking soldier in the Irish Republican Army. Caitlin, it soon turns out, is not his wife as the audience might have assumed, but his sister-in-law. The discovery a few days ago, discussed in the prologue, of Caitlin’s husband and Quinn’s brother Seamus’ corpse in a bog with a bullet through his head, seemingly murdered by the IRA for being an informer, will send profound ripples through the fabric of this family.
What a family it is. A right Irish clan of rogues, charmers and curmudgeons — half Sean O’Casey extras, half Cheaper by the Dozen remake — it includes the seven, sharply written and differentiated children from infant to teenagers belonging to Quinn and his neurasthenic, mostly bed-bound wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly).
Then there is a brace of batty aunts — Aunt Maggie Far Away is the dotty seer (Brid Brennan), while Aunt Pat is a bitter Republican firebrand (Dearblha Molloy); sweet-souled Uncle Pat (Des McAleer), whose reading of The Aeneid gives the play its name; and English farmhand Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), who Quinn’s late father adopted as a boy, a sort of Lenny-like man mountain on the autistic spectrum, prone to producing a live rabbit from his pocket in moments of stress. And don’t forget the three teenage Corcoran cousins — strutting Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney), doofus Diarmaid (Conor MacNeill) and sharply observant 13-year-old Declan (Michael McCarthy and Xavier Moras Spencer on alternate nights), who arrive from Derry to help with the harvest that day.
Some Irish viewers may find the steady stream of wisecracks, whiskey-swilling and whirligig dancing — both to traditional fiddle tunes and a blast of The Undertones’ classic, “Teenage Kicks,” that reaches its peak in the middle of Act II — borders a wee bit uncomfortably on “Oirish” stereotyping,. That’s made even more problematic by the fact Butterworth is English. (Although it sometimes seems as if such clichés are fine so long as only a local like Roddy Doyle or Neil Jordan deploys them.)
What’s smart, however, about Butterworth’s writing here is the way it fingers how much of this blarney is often self-stereotyping, especially from teenagers eager to look like hard men. The IRA boss Muldoon (Stuart Graham), who through the story is no different, just believes more staunchly in his own mythology. They’re all acting roles they are writing in their own heads, which might offer one generous explanation as to why so often the dialogue sounds a bit too declamatory and over-rehearsed, especially from the younger castmembers.
Those pesky myths and legends of the land, setting impossible standards especially for men, will be the characters’ undoing here. Without belaboring the point, Butterworth and Mendes suggest how the Troubles of the last century still cast a pall on events today, especially since the reunification of Ireland has become a hot topic once again in the wake of the Brexit referendum. History, both on a national level and the micro level of family, ensnares us, engulfs us and cannot be escaped, no matter how much we might try lying to ourselves and others about the truth.
Venue: Royal Court Theatre, London
Cast: Turlough Convery, Eugene O’Hare, Gerard Horan, Stuart Graham, Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Elise Alexandre, Darcey Conway, Angel O’Callaghan, Clara Murphy, Brid Brennan, Carla Langley, Des McAleer, Niall Wright, Sophia Ally, Grace Doherty, Rob Malone, Dearbhla Molloy, John Hodgkinson, Fra Fee, Genevieve O’Reilly, Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeill, Michael McCarthy, Xavier Moras Spencer
Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Director: Sam Mendes
Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Music & sound designer: Nick Powell
Choreographer: Scarlett Mackmin
Fight director: Terry King
Presented by The Royal Court Theatre, Sonia Friedman Productions with Neal Street Productions
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