29th April, 2017, matinee*
* Please note this was a preview performance.
‘Harvest time’s a fine time of the year, so it is’ – The Ferryman.
Virgil takes a key role in Jez Butterworth’s new play, the title being a reference to Charon the ferryman in Virgil’s The Aeneid. Of course, it was the Virgillian idea that the country is a place of harmony that Butterworth has previously played with and shattered (just as Crimp did in The Country as mentioned by Billington). The rural setting in The Ferryman is familiar ground for a Butterworth play. Yet this County Armagh farmhouse is far from the Edgeland or Hinterland-like settings of his other plays.
The idea of the countryside being a dangerous place pervades Butterworth’s work. Even in Mojo, set in a darkly comic gangland Soho, one of the longest and most brutally vivid speeches in the play is Baby’s memory of a childhood trip to the countryside with his dad spent killing a cow – a similar idea of sacrifice is also resonant in The Ferryman. Elsewhere, social pariahs are common in Butterworth’s rural settings. In The Night Heron, for the religious Wattmore, fired from his job as gardener at Cambridge University, the remote cabin in the wilderness of the Fens is a place of banishment from his own idea of the Garden of Eden. In Jerusalem, the intoxicated and intoxicating Johnny Rooster Byron provides a place of revelry and refuge for the young. Compare Jerusalem’s setting to that of its sister play Parlour Song, which is geographically undefined and dominated by suburban identikit housing estates. It could be set anywhere in middle England. Indeed, the 78 identical houses on the new estate near Ned and Joy’s house could be the very same ‘seventy-eight brand-new houses’ on the new estate in Jerusalem. In Parlour Song, the sense of placelessness reflects a nightmarish sense of middle aged inertia. In The River, The Man takes solace in trout fishing by ‘the cabin in the woods by the river’. Trapped in a cycle – perhaps an annual ritual – The Man’s ability to find love can’t seem to match his love for fishing (I realise this massively simplifies what is a beautifully rich play that could be as much about writing as it is fishing). In The Winterling, the exiled hitman West has taken over a deserted farmhouse in the middle of the ancient and cruel Dartmoor landscape, a place where badgers are likely to maul your face off. The countryside, then, welcomes outsider characters and its landscape is an escape from the rigid structures and uniformity that so often dominates modern life. But rural landscapes in the plays also demand a respect (for example West mentions a Welsh Young Businessman of the Year who was found dead in the snow); it has a distinctively raw and unforgiving aura.
But in The Ferryman, order and continuity are highly regarded. We meet the Carneys on the morning of the annual harvest. Rob Howell’s design creates the Carney’s home (and it is homely) with fine detail: magnets on the Aga, old birthday cards and kids’ drawings strewn about all over, mismatching furniture. But you feel that everything also has its place, that it is organised chaos. It is a day of ritual that involves bringing in the crop followed by a feast: Mercy blows the horn to mark the start of the day; everyone is up before 6am; cousins come to help with the harvest; songs are sung; a fattened-up goose is to be killed.
But this harvest, things are different. The goose goes missing, perhaps an omen for later events in the play. It’s also ten years since Quinn Carney’s brother Seamus disappeared following his involvement with the IRA. Seamus’ wife Caitlin (and her son Oisin) is living with Quinn’s family, perhaps a bit too closely for Quinn’s wife’s liking. At the start of the play we hear that Seamus’ body has been found in a bog, preserved like the ancient figure in Seamus Heaney’s The Tollund Man, and it sets off fears that the IRA’s gangster reputation could jeopardise their cause. Tension, little by little, rises until its violent, tragic end.
Harvest day is all based on tradition. Indeed, there’s a kite and a goose just as there are in one of Uncle Pat’s stories of his first harvest of which Aunt Pat complains: ‘“Sixty straight harvests and I’m still clogging up the way”’ she mocks of him. Great emphasis is put on the importance and weight of family life. A photo of Big Jack looks over the house and his presence is still greatly felt even in the younger members of the family who never knew him. The idea of passing knowledge, the ‘Treasures of Yore’, down from the older generation to the younger ones is a key one. All the family chip in with the harvest and there’s even a resemblance of Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark in the way Quinn stresses the importance of family duty. ‘A man who takes care of his family’, Quinn toasts, ‘is a man who can look himself in the eye in the morning’. There is also a fascination with stories at play here: the construction of jokes, the choice of words, the arc of stories, and the currency of memories in old age.
The end image of act one of the lights going down on Oisin and the dead goose hanging up is one which invites comparisons with the brace of duck hanging up at the start of The Winterling. That idea then grew into his one act, Leavings, which features a story of a pair of ducks tied together, one of them dead and the other alive. I saw the dead goose at the end of act one, with Horrigan’s warning of ‘[Muldoon’s] not finished with you’ to Quinn still in my mind, and connected the goose to the Carney brothers. The way it glistened in the light slightly echoing Silver Johnny hanging upside down in Mojo, it is an ominous end to the act. What will happen to Quinn? And Oisin and Caitlin? Will Quinn leap into action? Will the harvest feast go ahead as it has done for generations?
The Ferryman feels like a more mature piece of work. The language isn’t as flashy and double acts don’t dominate bits of the action like in Butterworth’s earlier work. It’s still incredibly funny, from Tom Kettle’s knack for producing apples and rabbits out of his coat to the Carney family craic. But overall this play has a large family of characters, a family saga in 3 acts, all of which Butterworth and Sam Mendes handle masterfully. Watching it, I thought there were subtle echoes of Chekhov, Marina Carr, David Rudkin, O’Casey, perhaps even O’Neill.
Mendes and The Royal Court have assembled a great cast. Paddy Considine (making his theatre debut) embodies Quinn Carney, a diligent farmer and a passionate family man secretly in love with another woman. Laura Donnelly also does excellent work showing the different sides of Caitlin. There is a bit where she is drunk and dancing and you feel it is a sheer release of built-up pain. Dearbhla Molloy’s Aunt Pat is cold and sour-faced but we also see her hunger and trembling passion for Ireland and her love for the family. Considine, Donnelly and Molloy are part of a faultless ensemble including experienced actors who have won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for their work in Irish drama, right down to drama school students and actors making their professional theatre debut. John Hodgkinson is endearing as the only English character, Tom Kettle, a simple but kind factotum. Even his name is flat and lacks the poetry and wit of the Irish characters.
This is a play which works on so many levels. Analysis aside, there was an instinctive and emotional connection that I felt with The Ferryman. There’s a mythic, beating heart at the centre of it. Yes, it’s a play about Ireland and the Troubles, a play about family, a play about loyalty, but it’s also a play – although grounded in a tangible family setting complete with a baby, a goose and a rabbit – that conjures the sacred and the uncanny. The last few moments are tense as Nick Powell’s pulsing music intensifies and everything in the play comes together. Butterworth has often described his method as being natural; there’s rarely any talk of technique. He follows what excites him, what most gives him goose bumps. I think that translates to the audience. The banshees coming at the end of The Ferryman, like the giants approaching at the end of Jerusalem, is unsettling. I don’t necessarily understand why or what it means, but as Aunt Pat shouted ‘What have you done to this family’ amongst all the action, I felt generations of the Carney family – past, present and future – and Ireland’s history crumbling.
Breadcrumbs have led Butterworth to another masterpiece.