The shadows of the past come back to haunt the present in Jez Butterworth’s (Jerusalem, Mojo) superb new play, The Ferryman (Royal Court Theatre until May 20, then the Gielgud in the West End from June 20), directed by Sam Mendes.
The year in 1981, the setting a 50-acre farm in County Armagh. 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 there is no escape from the past. One is the grisly discovery of the body of Quinn’s brother, missing for ten years, after Quinn’s defection of the IRA. The other is the unexpected arrival on the farm of a leading Republican power figure.
But in this play the private is intertwined with the political and at the heart lies the tender relationship between Quinn and his brother’s wife Caitlin. The idea of secret passion also extends to two aunts, who, in different ways, lost their loved ones.
This is an engrossing and powerful play, as well as a complex family portrait, played out against the backdrop of the troubles which shows that a violent past can no more be suppressed that the private passions we are afraid to articulate, in this case the unspoken love between Quinn and Caitlin. Its title – and one of its many themes – is a reference to the Virgilian ferryman Charon and the unburied souls that roam the earth. Mendes’s production strongly conveys the sense of foreboding that underpins the celebration and the daily drama of family life. There is, I should add, a combination of scrupulous naturalism – real rabbits, a goose and even a baby is brought on stage – with a sense of mysterious.
Rob Howell’s farmhouse kitchen set with its antique beams and time-weathered walls with the light spilling through provides the perfect atmosphere for this richly-textured production.
Paddy Considine, in his stage debut, displays extraordinary stillness and presence as the brooding, fiercely uncompromising Quinn, a man endowed with unflinching integrity, while Laura Donnelly gives a heartfelt performance as Caitlin and Genevieve O’Reilly presents a study in ashen fragility as Quinn’s wife Mary. One of the most revealing moments is the way the ailing Mary quietly averts her gaze as Caitlin bustles about their communal kitchen which speaks volumes about the plight of two women in love with the same man.
As to the rest of the impeccable cast, Brid Brennan is impressive as the wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Faraway whose name says it all, as eloquent in her watchful silence as in her rare moments of speech, while Dearbhla Molloy brings both caustic wit and heartfelt passion to Aunty Pat and the moment when she interrupts the wild and whirring dancing to intone the names of the dead hunger strikers, is truly chilling. Des McAleer makes his presence felt as an over-talkative uncle with a love of the classics, John Hodgkinson is convincing as Kettle, a rumpled English outcast, and Stuart Graham is suitably menacing as the inflexible IRA leader, anxious to bury the sins of the past. I must also commend newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney who stands out as the eldest of the visiting Corcoran brothers, a livewire who is alarmingly susceptible to the lure of fanaticism.
This then, is a five-star play, full of life, heart and passion which goes straight on my ten best of the year list.
Showing at the Royal Court Theatre until 20 May 2017Last modified: May 10, 2017