The Ferryman

If populism breeds cynicism, then there's a high quota of cheap shots that could be made towards the Royal Court's latest offering. The desire for the Chelsea chattering theatregoers to have a Jez Butterworth experience under their belt to discuss, the results of the return of Sam Mendes to his theatrical homeland – one of the few directors' names your Mum may actually know, since his foray into Bond – the well-worn subject matter of the passions of the Irish during the height of the Troubles both towards the cause and to the family. You may want to knock it down just because of the hype and the cliché. But if that's the game you want to play then good luck to you, as this is a powerfully shattering piece of theatrical realism that will envelop you wholly from the burbling of a real baby to the passions of Irish dancing and the terror behind a look and of a gunshot. It draws you in, feeds you wholly and then spits you out hard and shattered.

There is magic on this stage and if Butterworth and Mendes have a partnership that can better the creations of the other by working together as they have here, then long may they continue to serve us such feasts.

Set primarily over one night in 1981, at the time of Bobby Sands' death from his hunger strike and Thatcher's denouncement of the Irish as mere criminals, the three hours play out close to real time as the sprawling Carney family prepare for and partake in the annual Harvest celebrations. The family seems to grow and grow as the excitement of tradition swells, on the most realistic staging of the living quarters I've seen recently at the Court. It's overtaken as it fills with 16, 17, 18 children, adults, matriarchs, babies and even live animals all running around – yet each individual always seems ensconced and involved rather than causing distraction or displaying that annoying habit of actors "listening" whilst being blocked. This veritable hubbub of activity only serves to heighten the secrets shared and hidden – a love triangle, an aching loss and pure unbridled hatred for the enemy.

The plot key that unlocks and shatters the security of tradition and family that has built up is the discovery of the body in a bog of the ten year missing family member, Seamus. Other than at the dramatic ending, this news disjoints and raises questions rather than shatters all around. It raises questions that threaten the accepted – his brother Quinn's heroic status as family head, his wife's true love and belief in his loss, his son's confusion of what to believe in any more. His death opens the desire for the souls of the individuals to find a home – whether that home is family, tradition, ritual, love or fight, they search for the resting place as if arriving at Hades from their journey with the analogous Ferryman of Virgil.

Mendes brings out performances from all the cast that are richly rounded and change the atmosphere in a beat with not a detail or a moment having been unconsidered or wasted – echoed by Rob Howell's exquisite set that's brimming with real food (I'm sure you can smell bacon actually being fried), drink, feast and the aforesaid animals and babies. Paddy Considine's intricately passionate performance as Quinn – a lovable father figure who only hints at the truths he hides – is all the more astonishing for his understanding of the power he holds on stage whilst being his theatrical debut. Whilst Laura Donnelly as Caitlin displays both a mourning loss for her missing husband and a deep unspoken love for Quinn, more by her physicality and her facial expressions than by employing any moment of dramatic revelation. But the beautiful almost monotone playing of the slow-witted, English neighbour Tom Kettle by John Hodgkinson sums up the power of the piece – the magic of his almost throwaway moments moving more than any dramatic crescendo.

There is magic on this stage and if Butterworth and Mendes have a partnership that can better the creations of the other by working together as they have here, then long may they continue to serve us such feasts.

Reviews by Simon Smith

National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★
Dorfman Theatre

Nine Night

★★★
The Royal Court Theatre

The Prudes

★★★
Royal Court Theatre

Instructions for Correct Assembly

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

After a sold out run the Royal Court Theatre, the highly anticipated production of Jez Butterworth’s new major drama The Ferryman will transfer to the West End. Multi award-winning actor, director and writer Paddy Considine is joined by Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly in the production directed by Sam Mendes. 

Rural Derry, 1981. The Carney farmhouse is a hive of activity with preparations for the annual harvest.  A day of hard work on the land and a traditional night of feasting and celebrations lie ahead. But this year they will be interrupted by a visitor.

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