Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Review The Ferryman

The Ferryman
by Jez Butterworth

Cooking The Family Goose

Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), a former IRA man, has turned his sword into a plowshare and now, in 1981, is cultivating cereal crops on the family farm.
Jez Butterworth's dramatic tapestry weaves in the past - back to the prehistoric bog men whose fate disturbingly echoes more recent events through the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the men and women who disappeared during The Troubles - up to the play's present day with the hunger strikers in Long Kesh's Maze Prison 

Artfully staged and acted, the large cast of this sprawling family melodrama is skilfully deployed by director Sam Mendes over nearly three and a half hours.  

The play is structured like a movie  or a boxed set  setting up a question mark and the imminence of threat and violence in the first scene and switching to the Armagh countryside with several stories intertwined.

A distinctive literary sensibility runs through the drama - the plays of Brian Friel, Sean O'Casey and Eugene O'Neill came to mind while there's more of a whiff of James Joyce with its tales of lost loves and dashed hopes with political activity.  It's often humorous, troubling, delightful and menacing in turns.  

There's meticulous attention to detail by designer Rob Howell down to the kitchen of the Catholic farmer's family with the smell of cooking meat wafting from the substantial range. 

As the family descends for the start of the harvest, there's also something of a feel of Northern Irish harder-edged, more sweary version of  The Waltons  where we meet parents, children, elderly uncles and aunts and eventually cousins. 

But the play starts very differently in a city the very name of which is a matter of contention with a horrifying exhumation of the recent past, showing this can be no rural idyll.  

The family arrangements of Quinn, his widowed sister-in-law luminous dark haired Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), joined eventually by his fragile, exhausted fair-haired wife Mary (Genevieve O'Reilly) and the pall of  possible illicit relationships and abuses, past and present, also hang over the generations. 

Yet in some ways this felt like a mystery story which never quite materialized, almost as if we were being deliberately diverted (in every sense of the word), with the possible chief character of that tale, Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan) hardly appearing. 

And that's what we found mildly frustrating Stories are evoked and then curtailed - so we never quite know what happens in the end even if it does feel jam-packed. The strands of the stories come thick and fast with the hovering of stereotypes. 

Yet it enchants enough that we bob along on the sea of words and comings and goings including a remarkably docile baby and various live animals, courtesy of gentle giant Englishman Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), with a Shakespearean sounding moniker which happens to be the name of a Home Rule politician and friend of James Joyce

Considine as Quinn makes a fine professional stage debut, a tall, slightly stooping but sturdy figure who like, Donelly's Caitlin, is caught between ancient and the modern, 

But this is very much an ensemble piece from youngest child Honor (Grace Doherty alternating with Sophia Ally) to aged wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan). Like a victim of sleeping sickness awoken by drugs, she has moments of lucidity turning her into an aged Scherherazade.   

Des McAleer as Uncle Pat straddles the century through his education in the classics, as well of his memories of a harsh but pastoral farming past. An education which smacked to us as possibly British based. Equally, Dearhbla Molloy crosses the years both visually and verbally as the staunchly republican Aunt Patricia.
The play's visceral strength lies in its archeological layers of Irish history where everything. good and bad,  feels "pickled", perpetually in readiness for Virgil's boatman of death, The Ferryman of the title. 

Amidst the lyrical flow there are also sly hints of something more - a glimpse of another son of Armagh, the Reverend Ian Paisley and also international economic reality underpinning the farm.  

Through myth, literature and filmmaking, the image of Northern Ireland and Ireland has itself been "pickled", even if the hornblowing for the harvest crosses more than one culture. 

Now on the verge of Brexit, we look back from yet another archeological layer as the borderlands enter into a new phase and it's a green light for a play which feels obliquely apt for our times.

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