​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Morning at the home of the Carney family. Quinn and Caitlin Carney enjoy a peaceful dawn of a new day. Quinn, a sturdy farmer, preparing for the celebration of the Harvest, a most joyous day, playfully teases Caitlin about a seemingly impossible decision: if she only had one car with her to save four people in mortal peril, who would she save, The Beatles, The Stones, or Led Zeppelin? "Led Zeppelin," prompts Caitlin, much to Quinn's dismay. He implores, she reconsiders. Finally, she agrees to combine and take Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and any one of The Beatles members with her -- and Keith Richards, but only if he takes a bath!

The pastoral is interrupted by little Honor, who reminds her father that it's time for breakfast. The curtains are drawn apart, and the light comes in; the entire family is fast awakened, among them Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, the pensive Aunt Maggie Far Away, Quinn's seven children, and his wife, Mary. Swiftly and quietly, Caitlin withdraws from the scene. She is not Quinn's wife, but Seamus', and for the past decade, she's been pining under Quinn's roof, with her teenage son Oishin, waiting for news of her husband.

Lamentably, soon we will find out that the fate of all 17 members of the Carney family is plagued by far more than Quinn's and Caitlin's doomed longing for each other, or even Seamus' sudden disappearance.

Jez Butterworth, aptly described by the Guardian as a "visionary fast becoming a theatrical great", has scored another triumph with The Ferryman, a mesmerizing, all-encompassing, three-and-a-half-hour-long epic meditation on the passage of time, the fickleness of idea(l)s, and the catastrophe of living with loss and uncertainty. Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Butterworth's new hit leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

Butterworth, no stranger to fame and praise, scored his latest massive hit in 2009, with the brilliant Jerusalem, written for and brought to life by Mark Rylance. This time the maverick of satire and life's many mishaps teams up with the always reliable and manic Sam Mendes, who flawlessly brought the scale and scope of this family's existence to life. Butterworth previously collaborated with Mendes on two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre, where Butterworth was "on call to polish the script". The play, which premiered on 27 April 2017, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, became a modern classic in record time, having scored 15 five-star reviews from all major British publications within days; it has also since become the fastest-selling play in the 61 years of theater's history. A West End relocation was immediately in sight, and the current run is comfortably occupying the stage of the Gielgud Theatre, where the performance will be extended for a third run until 19 May 2018, due to overwhelming demand.

With both the critics and the audiences raving, it came as little surprise that on 3 December, the play won three gongs at this year's London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, including the accolades for Best Play, Best Director, and the Emerging Talent Award, picked up by the incredible Tom Glynn-Carney.

At first glance, and typical for the elusive depth of Butterworth's writing, The Ferryman seems to be a formulaic family dramedy, an extraordinary story about ordinary people who live their lives quietly and inconsequentially, longing for the bygone times, inertly wrapped in their own little, 50-acre rural estate world. Mendes' immaculate scenography and choreography purposefully intend to fully immerse us in the world of the mundane, the uneventful and especially the relatable nature of these people's lives; however ,Butterworth's script effortlessly expands and dives head first to explore the topics of war, politics, poverty, social tension, justice, undisclosed desires, and vanishing.

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

The inspiration for the deeply moving story came from the disappearance of Eugene Simons, the uncle of Butterworth's wife, Laura Donnelly, who played Caitlin during the first run. Simons was a former IRA activist who disappeared in 1981, only to be found dead in 1984. Eventually he was added to the list of the 18 "Disappeared", the people believed to have been abducted, murdered and secretly buried during the Troubles. By exploring a deeply personal tragedy, the writer succeeds in creating a universal tale of loss, uncertainty, and the avoidance of facing the demons from one's past.

Adequately and purposefully, the story is fully centered around the common folk of Northern Ireland, farmers, the old and the innocent, people who want nothing to do with violence but who, like so many others, have been dealt a bad hand. While they prepare for the Harvest of 1981, ten republican prisoners die of hunger at the Maze prison, among them Bobby Sands, whose name is brought up when the elders heatedly quarrel over the nature and endurance of political ideals. In the infamous hunger strike and the attention it received from the international community, the IRA saw an opportunity for advancing its own fight, but the cause is tarnished by the ever-expanding list of The Disappeared.

Among The Disappeared is Seamus Carney, Quinn's brother and Caitlin's husband. His decade-long absence has reduced his wife's life to waiting and quiet desperation; her memory of him is fickle and malleable, like that of a woman speaking of her former lover, unsure of the quality of the relationship gone by. At times it seems as though she loved him, as though she still does. Often she recites the instances in which she heard someone speak about seeing him, where they saw him, what he was wearing and where he was going. Other times she claims she knew he was dead all along -- a profoundly poignant vignette about Seamus' car and the way he always parked it is nothing short of heart-crushing. To avoid raising a small child on her own, Caitlin sought shelter under the roof of another former IRA crony, Quinn Carney, and his family of 11, but little did she know that she would become a hostage of love and her memory in that home. Quinn is now a reformed, withdrawn and responsible family man, one who believes in a better tomorrow through work and simple life; both he and Caitlin are honest and considerate people, their love is purely platonic.

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However, the family love triangle is fully fleshed out by Quinn's peculiarly ill wife, Mary, who has spent years ailing in the confines of her bedroom, while her seven children are mostly raised by Caitlin and the elders, the charming Uncle and Aunt Pat (Patrick and Patricia, respectively), with occasional help from the mostly quiet Aunt Maggie Far Away. While the family joyously prepares for The Harvest, the celebration is interrupted by an unexpected visitor, Father Horrigan, Carney's harbinger of doom. The gut-wrenching discussion between him, Caitlin and Quinn is overheard by the young Oishin, and the drama takes a turn for the worse from then on. We end up spending about two more hours guessing and dissecting the proverbial Enemy of each and every one of the concerned: Is it the English? Is it the IRA? Is it the next-door cousins? Is it your priest? Is it yourself?

Butterworth may be English (albeit with two Irish grandparents), still he manages to deliver not only a Great Irish Tragedy, but a Great Tragedy as such. With his impeccable sense of character development and stories which flesh his protagonists out, in more than three hours (and two intermissions between acts), he imbues every single one of his 20+ characters with life and gives them a space of their own. The author's accomplishment is made all the greater when we find out that the majority of characters are children and teenagers -- it is through their naïve eyes that we witness the horrors of violence and other people's hidden agendas. The girls don't want to think about war but about boys, while the boys are divided between those who would prefer not to "end up in a ditch with a bullet to the back of their head", and those who believe the IRA is the only way out from the misery they live in. Their innocence and frenzied enthusiasm, regardless of their stance, are touching and frightening at once. Through their interactions with the elders the audience gains insight into the human spirit, the love, the dreams, and the vanishing of it all.

Irvin Yalom recently said in an interview that life is about "slowly losing everything", and The Ferryman is exactly that, a drama about the two most horrific, universal human fates, that of the vanishing of love, joy, trust and life, and the only worse fate, that of uncertainty and anticipation of something that will never happen. Though The Troubles is a complex socio political problem which could be difficult to explain to audiences from outside Britain, the final proof that Butterworth earns a spot among the great playwrights of our time comes from the simple manner in which he presents all this, through the lives of everyday people, whose stories we recognize and can identify with, anywhere in the world.

Butterworth's and Mendes' efforts are best supported by an astonishing cast. The performances are uniformly strong, though some stand out, notably William Houston as Quinn, Sarah Greene as Caitlin, Laurie Davidson as Shane Corcoran, and Maureen Beattie as Aunt Maggie Far Away. I wish I had the opportunity to see Paddy Considine as Quinn and Laura Donnelly as Caitlin, but their successors are so good, so ferocious and primal, there's no need to wish for anyone else to be in their shoes.

If Butterworth managed to aptly show the attitude toward life, death and vanishing through the eyes of four generations of ordinary people, then Mendes, one of the most celebrated modern British theater auteurs, really pushed the envelope with his direction here. His eye for detail and the desire for full authenticity are unparalleled -- the kitchen of the Carney household is reminiscent of most other cookeries, with messy tabletops and pantries suggesting someone has a bit of a hoarding problem. The level of realism is impressive, which means we get live bunnies literally pulled out of sleeves, a live goose chased around the house, and a real nine-month-old infant, the youngest member of the household. Designer Rob Howell went out of his way to accommodate every one of Mendes' and producer Sonia Friedman's whims, but the real star of the creative team is the lighting designer, Peter Mumford. His rendition of natural light, especially during "dusk", is extraordinary.

While most playwrights and creative teams struggle to make even a 90-minute play compelling, here three and a half hours fly by. Seamus Carney may have vanished, but his soul is still forced to wander the Earth and haunt the living. Unsurprisingly, toward the end every line brings Ancient Greece to mind. During some 30 years of The Troubles, more than 3,500 people vanished -- over half were civilians. As in every other armed conflict, it is mostly the innocent who get hurt. It is refreshing to see that someone took the time to tell all those stories through the eyes of the commoners.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre in London, currently booking until 19 May 2018.


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