A personal policy of mine is to avoid reading any reviews or commentary on plays that I’m going to review. I have trouble enough collecting my thoughts and emotions into coherent critical analysis without the noise of outside praise or pans. Expectations for The Ferryman were high already- it is directed by Sam Mendes and written by Jez Butterwortth, after all, so is highly buzz worthy, with or without the weight of critical praise. So I was slightly dismayed when (Bad Habit Alert!) I checked Twitter before bed on Wednesday night and saw that Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) and Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) had both raved about it on their feeds. This is not to throw shade on those two gentlemen-Twitter is all about instant reaction, and is the ultimate tool for expressing interval joy or dismay if you’ve just seen something incredible- but I was annoyed that I now had to contend with someone else’s opinions before I had formed my own. I’m easily swayed, it’s how I’ve always been. So when I went into the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court last night, I was ready to be wowed.
The Ferryman certainly packs a punch. Butterworth does a good line in the sunny gone sinister (see: Jerusalem,) and the opening is very sinister indeed. A priest is threatened by an IRA man into giving information about Quinn Carney, and the air is thick with threat. A body has been found in a bog, with a bullet in its head. Carney (Paddy Considine) is an ex-IRA foot soldier who is now living the bucolic life in the country, raising his children, and we’re soon treated to scenes of him drinking and dancing in the kitchen with a woman whom we assume to be his wife. It turns out to be his sister-in-law Caitlin, the wife of his dead brother (the body in the bog). Carney’s actual wife is a bed-ridden waif plagued by a “virus”, and who doesn’t take much of an interest in downstairs life, other than to order Caitlin around. Tom Kettle, a mentally disabled, one-time-ward-of-the-family, Uncle Pat, Aunt Pat, and Aunt Maggie round out the adults, and there are about twenty children of various sizes, including Caitlin’s son, Oisin. It’s harvest, and whilst Caitlin busies herself at the hearth, Muldoon, the sinister IRA man who knows where the bodies are buried, soon makes an appearance. The festive mood turns sour as it becomes clear that certain things are never forgotten, and that Carney has to get his hands dirty if he wants to carry on with his charmed life. Except, of course, things will never be the same.
It’s riveting. Mendes takes Butterworth’s gift of building tension and runs with it, making the happy family scenes faintly echo with the possibility of tragedy. There are so many children in the play- which ones will come to harm? Butterworth keeps you guessing. It’s a deft move- you know that something terrible will happen to one of them. So many children cannot be allowed to remain happy at the end of such a play. The menace builds with the introduction of out-of-town cousins, IRA hopefuls the Corcorans, and all the kindling is placed in good position for a fire.
Considine is commanding as the laid-back pater familias, making it almost unbelievable that Quinn has this dark past. Almost is the important word here. The revelation that the man seen boozing and cavorting to the Rolling Stones is a hard-working father is another nice little bamboozle, turning the assumptions from that scene on their heads and using them to furnish our assumptions about Quinn for the rest of the play. Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin is quite moving, as she plays a woman who is quite dominant in her adopted home at Quinn’s range. The dangers of ambiguous IRA devotion are cleverly laid bare in the boasting Corcorans, of which the wary Carney boys rightly steer clear. But not so angry Oisin, and another stunning bamboozle by Butterworth awaits- but I won’t spoil that for you. The reckoning from all of this is truly shocking. I felt my breath leave my body. But was it satisfying? I’m still not sure. My feeling is that it wasn’t. The burst of violence at the end, and then simply ending on it, is a maverick move. It’s a playgoer’s worst nightmare to be confronted with a play that never ends, each bold act being followed by some kind of endless reckoning by the characters, and it was a relief to be spared that, but at the same time, this may have been too sudden an ending. And the supernatural element was out of place- the real-world threats of the IRA and what they symbolised were enough, without the banshees. But there’s real skill in the build (look at me, complimenting Sam Mendes and Jez Butterworth!) and it’s no mean achievement to create and sustain such tension for so long (it’s quite long, but you won’t notice.) There are moments of real hilarity (the children’s uniquely Irish profanity never gets old,) and a few incongruous moments which break up the tension (look for the rabbit,) but it’s always there, rising, right up until the shocking end.
The Ferryman is at the Royal Court Theatre until 20th May, and then transfers to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End.