I ended up seeing The Ferryman twice – quite unintentionally – and I am glad I did. For, despite being hailed as the ‘play of the year’ this is not a production that reaches its full impact at first viewing. Like Butterworth’s previous work there is so much to take in that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I did not catch Uncle Pat’s eponymous ferryman speech until the second time round, for example.
The Ferryman is a play concerned with echoes and reverberations. In the course of one, long, festive day, we are shown how tragedies, legends and consequences ripple through families, countries and cultures – and in particular through the Carney family. In a cast made up of three generations, almost every character has a ripple and and an echo: whether they are women on the fringes of the action, left behind to care for broken families, or young men reliving the tragedies of their fathers and uncles, every character is enacting a story that already exists: Mary and Aunt Maggie take refuge in invalidity to cope with the loss of the men they loved; Aunt Pat and Caitlin both live lives marked by men who died; and Shane and his brother Diarmaid seem bent on re-enacting the sorrows of Quinn and Seamus Carney.
Folklore, mythology and politics ripple through the story – whether it is reverence for the IRA transmitted from Aunt Pat to her nephews and beyond, the folkloric tales of banshees becoming intermingled with the menace of the IRA, or the passive role being passed down to subsequent generations of women. Dreams, mythology, history and fact are all passed down from the same lips, with little distinction.
The most obvious theme rippling through the play is its characters relationship with the IRA. This starts with Aunt Pat’s generation, born at the dawn of the 20th Century: she loses the brother she idolises to the troubles in 1917 and keeps his revolver in her bedroom – remaining loyal to his ideals over the years to the point that she mourns for every hunger striker. Even when they are presented to her in the twisted form of thuglike Mr Muldoon, the very man responsible for the death of her nephew, she feels compelled to shake his hand. There is a sadness about this: that Pat has not grasped that her struggle and that of Muldoon are no longer the same, and that he warrants neither her sacrifice not her support.
The ripple carries on to demonstrate how little people learn from even the most recent tragedies and mistakes: through Quinn Carney, who leaves the IRA to raise his family, and his brother Seamus who is executed for talking too much. As the action unfolds, we see their sons and nephews struggling with the same questions over allegiance and identity – with Declan on his way to becoming another loose-lipped casualty.
There are echoes – in the structure and mood of the play, its pastoral setting imbued with impending doom – of Butterworth’s last hit play, Jerusalem. The action takes place on a holiday with roots beyond the Christian, there are live animals on stage at various points, the same large cast of characters, and the same unfurling process, with the household literally waking up, adopting a festive mood and the winding down as the sense of foreboding mounts. It’s impossible not to make comparisons – something I found incredibly distracting first time round.
Butterworth weaves in echoes from literature, too – elements rising to the surface from Homer, from Steinbeck and from Celtic myths and placing what might seem to be a domestic tragedy on a grander stage. But it also places the much of the history being shared in the context of mythology, too: Aunt Pat’s generation has reached mythological status in the eyes of her great-nieces and nephews, the hunger strikers are martyrs in the eyes of the boys who idolise them and aspire to be a part of the myths themselves. But Muldoon and his gang represent something more real and dangerous than the myths being spun.
Unlike Jerusalem, this is an ensemble piece, and although Paddy Considine is ostensibly the star, no-one performer is allowed to dominate. There is almost perfect balance between the old and the young, worldly and innocent, male and female on stage, with standout performances from Dearbhla Molloy as feisty, foul-mouthed Aunt Pat, Tom Glynn-Carney as Declan and John Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle. It’s a giant of a play – not just in it length, but in the scope of what it addresses, the human relationship with history and hyperbole and how the art of storytelling – and the desire to create and participate in myths – skew our perspective of the world and its realities.
Despite its richness, I cannot agree with the ‘play of the year’s claims. Unusually for such a vibrantly realised piece, I didn’t feel for the characters, or wonder what happened to them the moment after the curtain fell. When tragedy strikes there is no wrench. Quinn and Caitlin’s love seemed obvious and commonplace to me, almost lazy plot writing. As a result, the Ferryman is neither the best show I’ve seen this year, nor the best new show. It’s thought-provoking and heartfelt, packing punches as well as producing laughs…but for me it lacked the emotional impact of, for argument’s sake, Jerusalem.