Review: The Ferryman (Royal Court)

Sam Mendes directs Jez Butterworth’s hugely rich new play

The anticipation surrounding Jez Butterworth‘s new play The Ferryman has been epic. His first three-hour, three-act play since the blistering Jerusalem in 2009 is directed by Sam Mendes, making his return to the British stage after a long sojourn with James Bond. It became the fastest-selling show in the history of the Royal Court, and its transfer to the West End was announced long before it opened. It promised to be a huge event.

And so it is. Literally so. Huge in the scale of its cast, of its ambition, of its rich themes. But above all, massive in its capacity to hold an audience rapt, in silence, telling them a story. It is, like Jerusalem before it, an extraordinary, thrilling act of belief in the power of theatre to gather people in a room and make them listen.

After a brief prologue, its opening scene is almost dizzying. On Rob Howell’s beautifully detailed, cluttered set, that perfectly evokes a farmhouse in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1981, a man and a woman, Quinn and Caitlin, are playing a drunken game. A lamp catches fire, and they dance, he looking at her with longing and love.

You think you are heading in one direction, then suddenly the stage is literally full of people, children appearing from every direction, old Uncle Pat wandering down the stairs talking about river gods, Aunty Pat appearing with pursed lips and a radio glued to her ear, moaning about the lack of story in his story-telling, and listening with fierce anger to Margaret Thatcher refusing to treat the IRA hunger strikers in the Maze prison as anything other than common criminals.

A battered eccentric Englishman appears, and produces not just apples but a live rabbit from his long coat. There’s a baby and a goose, and many jokes and much shared history and it is astonishing to see it all unfold. This is the Carney clan gathering for their traditional harvest meal but this year’s event is stalked by death and by the past; the body of Seamus Carney, Quinn’s brother, has been discovered in a bog, perfectly preserved, ten years after he disappeared, with a gunshot in the back of his head. The repercussions of that discovery ring loud and clear, bringing the IRA’s involvement in the lives of this family, and the dreams of justice and freedom that the hunger strikers are dying for take on new resonance as a long day journeys into night and well beyond into the following morning.

The story is so compellingly intricate that it would be a shame to give more away. Butterworth’s writing, both flexible and controlled, makes every moment, whether funny, tender or tragic worth leaning forward to catch. He creates a world where banshees are as real in the wandering reminiscences of Brid Brennan’s Aunt Maggie Far Away, as the brother who died in the Easter Uprising. History and its effects shape and warp personal relationships, binding them to the Troubles of Ireland itself, but also lending a strong sense of continuity to the ties of community that bind the family together. Love too haunts the action, taking different forms, involving sacrifice and sadness far more than joy.

The play is in its own way haunted by its past, by all the Irish plays that have gone before it, by Yeats and Friel, Eugene O’Neill and Tom Murphy, by Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. But it has its own tone and texture too, and by the time its ending comes, and the children all appear once more in a darker configuration of the joyful opening, it has covered enormous swathes of ground.

Mendes’ direction brings poetry to the most immensely detailed naturalism. The acting is so realistic that it seems to spring from the very soul of people. Paddy Considine, making his stage debut, displays extraordinary stillness and presence as Quinn; his scenes with Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin have a gentle grace that is utterly heart-breaking. Dearbhla Molloy brings both caustic wit and heart-felt passion to Aunty Pat; the moment when she interrupts the wild and whirring dancing to intone the names of the dead hunger strikers is truly chilling. The children are, without exception, the most unaffected and convincing I have ever seen.

There are odd moments when the tension slackens; the long section at the start of the third act where the city boys boast of their exploits in the pursuit of the republican cause feels prolix and I was sorry Aunt Pat vanished from the action. But these are small cavils in what is a triumphant, bold piece of theatre, an old-fashioned play full of life and heart and passion.

The Ferryman runs at the Royal Court until 20 May and then transfers to the Gielgud Theatre from 20 June to 7 October.