Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 21, 2018
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes. Scenic and costume design by Rob Howell. Lighting design by Peter Mumford. Sound designer and composer Nick Powell. Choreography by Scarlett Mackmin. Associate director Tim Hoare. Resident director Benjamin Endsley Klein. Hair, wigs, and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Animal Trainer William Berloni. US Fight Director Thomas Schall. US Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Dean Ashton, Paddy Considine, Charles Dale, Laura Donnelly, Justin Edwards, Fra Fee, Fionnula Flanagan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Stuart Graham, Mark Lambert, Carla Langley, Matilda Lawler, Conor MacNeill, Rob Malone, Michael Quinton McArthur, Willow McCarthy, Dearbhla Molloy, Genevieve OReilly, Brooklyn Shuck, Glenn Speers, Niall Wright, Sean Frank Coffey, Cooper Gomes, and Rafael West Vallés.
The year is 1981. It is 17 years ahead of the Good Friday Agreement that will officially bring an end to the decades-long conflict between the Protestant unionists who are loyal to Great Britain and the Catholic republicans who have been fighting for sovereignty. This is an especially tense time, in the midst a hunger strike by IRA prisoners in defiance of the intractable policies of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The voice of the "iron lady" can be heard at one point in a radio broadcast: "There can be no question of political status for someone who is serving a sentence for crime. Crime is crime is crime." Ten strikers starved to death during the political grandstanding on both sides. Their names are recited with harrowing respect several times during the three-and-a-quarter-hour-long play.
The Ferryman (the title refers to the mythological oarsman who carries souls across the River Styx to the land of the dead) opens downstage in front of a scrim, even as the audience is being seated. Two men, one of them carrying a plastic cup of beer, the other reading a newspaper, are standing in front of a dark graffiti-covered wall bearing political slogans and the names of martyrs to the cause. They are awaiting the arrival of a third man, a parish priest, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale). When he shows up, they are joined by someone else, a sinister-looking man who is obviously in charge, although we will not learn his identity until much later. He has a message for Father Horrigan. The body of one Seamus Carney has been found in a bog, a bullet through his skull, ten years after he disappeared. Father Horrigan is being dispatched to inform Seamus's family.
So, a suspenseful beginning indeed. But immediately, we are whisked to another world entirely, the farmhouse of Seamus's brother Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine, terrific, yet only one of many on whom this adjective affixes). He and Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly, equally wonderful in a role for which she won an Olivier Award for the London production) are alone onstage in the predawn. They are drinking, playing a heated game of Connect Four, and arguing about the relative merits of The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. The mood is very flirty, and you would be forgiven if you were to assume they are husband and wife. But, no. Caitlin is Seamus's wife, and she and her surly teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone) have been living with her brother-in-law's extended and extensive family ever since Seamus's disappearance.
Standouts among them are Aunt Pat, played by Dearbhla Molly, who gives a stunning performance as a deeply embittered IRA supporter whose rage against the English, the unionists, and the world in general dates back to the 1916 Easter Rebellion; Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), a spellbinding storyteller when she is not in a near catatonic condition, usually to be found sitting stock still in a wheelchair but who comes miraculously to life at random times with tales about the family's history, mythic encounters with banshees, and predictions about the future; and the gregarious and effusive Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert). There are others who will join later as it nears the time to harvest the crops and bring everyone in for a celebratory feast.
It is all so incredibly Dickensian, yet all so true-to-life. If things are strained between Quinn and Mary, the overall feeling is nevertheless one of a rambling household so filled with love (even with a certain degree of tension) and, when the mood strikes, wonderful bursts of singing and dancing (choreographed with abandon by Scarlett Mackmin), that it is real pleasure to be in their company.
Things will change, as they must, after Father Horrigan arrives to deliver his sad tidings, and then, a short time later, when the sinister thug we last saw during the prologue shows up. His name, we learn, is Muldoon (Stuart Graham), and he has more on his mind than condolences.
I'll say no more about the plot, though I do want to commend two more performances: Tom Glynn-Carney as Shane, a charismatic but foolish teenage cousin who is caught up in the superficial allure of the revolution; and Justin Edwards as Tom Kettle, a handyman who was abandoned years before by his British parents and is treated as one of the family, much to the consternation of the English haters among them.
As a playwright, Jez Butterworth has outdone himself here. A brilliant wordsmith, you can see how he draws inspiration from the likes of Shakespeare and Virgil, Sean O'Casey, Conor McPherson and Eugene O'Neill. Yet he makes it all his own, a somewhat audacious move considering that he himself is English and not Irish. Unlike his equally sprawling Jerusalem, which served largely as a showcase for Mark Rylance, this is an ensemble work in every sense of the word. Thanks to all involved, including the rabbit and the goose, The Ferryman is an absolutely sensational theatrical experience.