Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, The Ferryman screams success. Having previously worked together on Spectre (2015), this is the second collaboration between the renowned playwright and the Oscar-winning director. Their transformation of a true story into an epic play, bursting with intergenerational energy, snappy dialogue and tragic potency, is an astounding achievement.
The action takes place in September 1981, coinciding with the death of the hunger strikers. Butterworth’s play emerges from the story of Eugene Simons, who disappeared from Northern Ireland in 1981 and whose body was found in 1984. Uncle to the widowed Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), Simons was thought to be an informer and murdered by the IRA. In a Radio 4 interview with John Wilson, Butterworth explains that The Ferryman is guided by the idea of “vanishing”, of a “hideous absence”. Seamus Carney, the fictionalised Simons, has been missing for ten years. His wife Caitlin and their son Oisin have moved in with their in-laws, joining the main Carney clan in their fifty-acre farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
Within the Carney household, Butterworth explores the complex idea of “ambiguous loss” which can manifest itself both physically and psychologically. The physical loss of Seamus is reinforced by the psychological loss of Aunt Maggie, whose dementia causes her to stay silent and detached from the events taking place around her.
The rare scenes in which Maggie regains self-awareness and talks with the Carney daughters are touching, predicting their futures in even larger families. The Ferryman is full of such domestic charm, alongside the unfolding Troubles are life-affirming rural rituals such as the annual harvest and folk dancing around the dinner table. The homely charm is made even more powerful through the use of live animals (a goose and a rabbit) and a real baby, contributing to the charming authenticity and physicality of a domestic drama. Indeed, like Butterworth’s previous Royal Court success Jerusalem (2009), The Ferryman is an intensely physical play. All my senses were twitching with excitement throughout.
By portraying a historical drama through a domestic one, Butterworth offsets personal histories against public events and traditional narratives. When the village Priest, Father Horrigan, informs the Carneys that Seamus’ dead body has been found in a bog, dispelling the decade-old rumour that he was on the run for informing British authorities about IRA plans, he destabilises the family balance. Caitlin begins to question her role as widow and mother whilst Quinn, the family father and Seamus’ brother, is forced to question his choice to live a domestic life rather than a militant one. The overriding issue of Seamus’ unburied body gains universal significance through the title’s reference to Charon, Hades’ ferryman who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divide the world of the living from the world of the dead in Book VI of the Aeneid, quoted by the family’s loveable uncle. As in Sophocles’ Antigone, the characters must find a way to mourn the death of a family member without a body to grieve.
Mendes’ production is a beautiful exercise in restraint and authenticity. Apart from the first scene, the set remains the same: the farmhouse kitchen and dining room simply change colour as the sunlight fades in and out with the action unfolding over the course of two days. The three-and-a-half hours pass in the blink of an eye as Butterworth compresses years of both political and family drama in a fast-paced narrative where voices and memories are continually juxtaposed. The fabulous cast brings out the main strength of Butterworth’s playwriting: his capacity to create characters who are both stereotypical and unpredictable.
The sentimental and demented Aunt Maggie sleeps in one corner of the room whilst the agitated, militant, fervently Republican Aunt Patricia curses Margaret Thatcher in the opposite corner. Like the Carney children, we are curious about these seemingly clichéd characters and wonder what personal histories have defined them. In one of her more lucid moments, Aunt Maggie delivers a beautiful self-reflective confession in which she explains her teenage heartbreak and Aunt Patricia’s childhood trauma to the little girls. Even the old, frail and seemingly peripheral characters of The Ferryman have their own tear-jerking epics. These back stories wouldn’t be half as moving were it not for the sheer talent of Stella McCusker (Maggie) and Sian Thomas (Patricia), who successfully portray the difficult nuances of their respective characters.
The fastest-selling play in Royal Court history, The Ferryman has been transferred to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End and is set to run until 19 May 2018.