The hottest new play in London has got the maximum 5-star rating from half a dozen of the national newspapers; its West End transfer was assured before it even opened. There hasn’t been a theatrical event like this since – well, since the same playwright’s Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s “state of the nation” play about England. The Ferryman details the state of another part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland. Set on a fifty-acre farm in Armagh, in late August, 1981, at the time when Bobby Sands had just conferred martyrdom upon himself by self-starvation, The Ferryman is so convincingly Irish, in thought, in expression, even in the movement and postures of the cast, that you’d think they all, plus Butterworth and his director, Sam Mendes, must themselves be Irish.
Just as in Jerusalem, where Mark Rylance’s performance got somewhere close to the heart of what it means to be English, in The Ferryman the entire troupe conveys both the charm and the dangers of Irish history and culture. Reading the text, I was often struck by the difficult idiom – it’s not just the vowels and the extra syllables in words such as “film” (“fill’-em”) that make the dialogue Irish, or having a y sound after the initial consonant in “car” and “garden” – it’s also vocabulary differences. Children are “the weans,” doing or saying something negative or hostile is “pissing on the strawberries.” The rhythms are different; a sentence often ends with a vocative: “Dance with your sister-in-law, man.” And six-year-olds swear like soldiers in a brothel.
I’m not expert enough to say whether Butterworth has got everything right, or if he’s captured all the differences between the speech of Ulster and that of the south; but it is an extraordinary feat of script-writing for a non-native speaker. And to me and my non-Irish companion, if occasional passages seemed only barely comprehensible, as though no concessions were being made to those who did not speak or understand the Irish dialect – this is only to say that it felt and sounded authentic to us, even at the expense of our missing the odd punch-line. (Kudos to the dialect coach, Majella Hurley, though a good many of the cast actually are Irish.)
As in Jerusalem, Butterworth finds humour in the horror, and makes the audience wonder nervously whether they’re seeing a comedy or a tragedy. In the prologue, we see black-jacketed IRA thugs blackmailing a priest into betraying the sacrament of the confessional. Twenty-year-old Seamus Carney “vanished” ten years earlier. Now his body has been found, preserved by the peat bog in which it was dumped, as was “his picture of his wee’un. And his Timex watch.” Looking at a photograph of the corpse, Father Horrigan “can also see the bullet hole in the back of his head,” showing that he was “executed” by the IRA, four weeks after his brother, the philoprogenitive Quinn Carney (a glorious piece of acting by Paddy Considine), left the proscribed organisation. The high-ranking IRA officer, Muldoon (Stuart Graham), menaces Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan): “I know you knew Quinn. Sure, you and him shared the cage there in Long Kesh.” This frightening scene ends with a blackout, and the joyously incongruous stage direction: “‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Rolling Stones, loud.”
The stagecraft when the scene changes to Act One is magnificent. We are now in an old farmhouse kitchen, with the permanently open lids of what is supposed to be a coal-fired range (but looks very like my own ancient Aga), laundry drying everywhere, and a dozen lit candles (bravo, set designer Rob Howell). The Stones are now playing on the “big ghetto blaster,” and the stunning Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly, superb), Quinn’s sister-in-law, and he are playing a game of Connect Four. They’re high on drink or the contents of their roll-ups, and continue their game, while also playing who-will-you-save-in-the-lifeboat? They end up dancing, blindfolded, and Butterworth’s stage direction is as funny as the dialogue: “QUINN Jaggers along as the music builds.” They’re obviously lovers.
It’s either very late at night or very early in the morning of the day when their three teen-aged Corcoran cousins from Derry will join the elder Carney boys in bringing in the harvest, and celebrating with a feast and ceilidh. Soon the Carney “keeds” pour onto the stage, 16-year-old JJ and 15-year-old Michael, plus Caitlin’s only son, Oisin, 14; and the girls, Shena (14), Nunu (Nuala, 11), Mercy (9), Honor (7); and there is also the 9-month-old baby, sinisterly christened “Bobby” Carney. The adults are Mary, Carney’s wife, usually confined to her bed with “the viruses”, and Quinn’s savagely pro-Republican Aunt Patricia (in her 80s, played fiercely by Dearbhla Molloy) and Uncle Patrick (70s, Des McAleer). Then there’s his other aunt, Maggie Far Away (Bríd Brennan), in her 80s, usually as demented as her name indicates, but capable of astonishing feats of historical recall and also banshee-spotting, delivered in long, delicious monologues. There is a single Englishman in the play, Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), in his dishevelled 40s. He’s cast-listed as “an English factotum,” and you’d suppose he’d be a stereotype; but he’s actually a complicated Shakespearean fool, able to plough a straight furrow, mend a window, catalogue rainbows, grow apples from seed and produce a live rabbit and goose from his voluminous pockets. He can also recite a poem by Walter Raleigh and has a crush on Caitlin. One of the Corcoran brothers, Shane, is played by a relative newcomer, Tom Glynn-Carney, who gives a memorable performance as a snake-hipped, randy, way too self-confident 17-year-old. But then, all the performances are superlative; Sam Mendes gets the 21-strong ensemble to give of their best, as he also seems to do of the real-live baby (the second this London season, preceded by Nina Raine’s in her own Consent), and the goose and rabbits are uncannily well-behaved.
Into this Irish Eden intrudes the (explicitly) snake-like Muldoon, prepared to coerce anyone he cannot seduce. He thinks the IRA is about to achieve popularity because of the self-sacrificial deaths of the hunger strikers, and that they will acquire the status of political prisoners, despite Margaret Thatcher’s mantra that “There can be no question of political status for someone who is serving a sentence for crime. Crime is crime is crime. It is not political, it is crime.” Muldoon’s purpose is, at any cost, to keep the Carneys and Corcorans silent about the cause and manner of Seamus Carney’s death. At the centre of the play is, of course, the unburied, peat-pickled body of Seamus, and the question, who is the ferryman, the Chiron who will row him across the Styx to eternal rest?
Butterworth sees (and sees through) Muldoon’s attempt to appropriate Irish history – and, what is more important, Irish mythology – to the IRA’s political ends. Yet, artist that he is, Butterworth appreciates the magic and the myths, and the history, the charm, and the craic. Like Jerusalem, The Ferryman shows that this non-urban idyll turns out to be a rural dystopia or, perhaps more correctly, a countryside kakatopia. But there are no abstractions in this more than three hour-long play; it is lovingly particular and each concrete detail seems to be cherished by playwright, director and every one of its many fine actors. Following its sold-out run at the Royal Court, The Ferryman transfers on 20 June to the Gielgud Theatre, London, where I hope to see it again.