The Ferryman: Everything and Nothing

(Photo: Johan Persson)
Can a play be both rich and slight?  Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman makes me believe so. 

Set in Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1981, it is inevitable that The Ferryman will revolve around the Troubles.  But in many ways, Northern Ireland is simply the device Butterworth uses to tell a different story he's interested in.

The Troubles are the framework he lays over a domestic situation to create dramatic tension. Butterworth otherwise does not seem particularly invested in the politics. He just likes the drama. Sadly, so do we.  It’s both an effective trick and devious one.  He’s poached the Irish cultural references for his purposes but it’s a shallow reading of them.  Yet, we might not notice amidst the theatrical poetry, tragedy, and sweeping romance of the play.  

Paddy Considine plays the patriarch of the Carney clan, Quinn Carney.  A farmer with a past, he’s got 7 kids and a houseful of relatives under his care.  Everyone is gathering, including some cousins from the city, to help with the harvest.  But Quinn’s brother Seamus’s body has been found after being missing for 10 years and this sets off a series of events that will change the family.  Bodies should stay buried and there are those who are unhappy this one has been found.

Seamus’s widow Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) tries to keep her son Oisin (Rob Malone) in the dark about the discovery of his father’s body until they get through the long day of the harvest.  But secrets are hard to keep.

Butterworth lets the story unfold slowly and cagily at first. He holds our attention with quotidian activities, abundant personalities, and old family stories—crochety elderly relatives sharing tales of the past, their involvement in the Easter Rising, and their long dedication to the principles of the IRA. But there is a reason the Carneys are off in the countryside, far from the tensions of Derry.

As the machinations of the Butterworth’s plot kick in, like any tragedy, so much feels inevitable.  But Butterworth plays with pacing and storytelling devices, all of which keep us on our toes.

To make the play come together in the finale, Butterworth has had to strain to get this massive cast and slew of characters to take the steps he needs them to take to get the ending he wants.  At the same time, he tips his hand quite a bit.  It’s like he cannot help himself.  The play is suffuse with literary references which are oddly on the nose but he’s too in love with the language and poetry to worry about the obviousness.  In addition, he owes a hefty debt of gratitude to Of Mice and Men and Brian Friel.

We are intoxicated by the luxurious cast, colorful chatter, delightful yarns, and robust setting. Butterworth starts out slow and careful and only as we near the end does he escalate the speed to a whiplash-inducing finale. But once the drunken high of the play wears off, it does not have the sustaining strength and structure of Jerusalem.  In the cold light of day, the political ideologies certain characters are meant to stand for, seem flimsy and half-sketched upon reflection. The Ferryman also does not boast such a once in a lifetime portrayal as Mark Rylance in Jerusalem either.

Certainly, playwrights can write outside their personal experience but there is a hollowness to this play.  There's something muddy and non-specific that hangs on the work--flitting from conflict to conflict we are easily distracted away from the problem.  It's skillful sleight-of-hand where only in the aftermath you suddenly realize you did not get much information and just accepted the cultural tensions without demanding the connective tissue that makes up these disputes. So is that evidence of a highly talented playwright or a deficient one?

It’s still hard to really complain about The Ferryman. Large cast, epic plays are rare in this day and age.  The sheer scale of the production stuns.  At some point you think there cannot be more people on the stage, and more arrive.  Director Sam Mendes confronts the old adage, never work children (a real live baby!) or animals, by putting both on this crowded stage too.

Laura Donnelly’s complex performance is transfixing.  Caitlin lives a lifetime of highs and lows in the three plus hours we spend with her on stage.  She plumbs the depths of personal despair and the recognition of true happiness, with every emotion in between.  Donnelly brings a beautiful clarity to her character and achieves a great deal through unspoken moments.  It's worth seeing the play for her alone.  Considine feels less up to the task. This is his stage debut and despite a long career in film, he does not communicate emotionally across the stage space with enough force. He’s the critical linchpin to much of the play’s plot and he does not bear that responsibility well.

Even with the long running time, we do not mind how much time we’re spending with these characters and I might have even welcomed a six-hour version where some of these cultural issues could have been fleshed out. Jez Butterworth, I ain't mad at ya.