Sunday, 23 July 2017

'The Ferryman' at the Gielgud Theatre

Last week we went to see 'The Ferryman', Jez Butterworth's new play set in a republican house in 1981 in rural Northern Ireland.  Jez wrote the great 'Jerusalem' 8 years ago (or something like that) and this is in similar territory - small people that big things are happening to - but with a powerful political backdrop to the whole thing if you're old enough to know about it. I was sitting beside an American couple in the theatre who clearly didn't know about the 'troubles' and every now and then laughed in the 'wrong' places. I found that both annoying and distressing but never mind. That helps to give some context for the play.

Yes, we're in rural Northern Ireland - the bit that remained part of the UK rather than be part of the Republic of Ireland - at the height of the 'troubles' and the hunger strikes of Bobby Sands and others. I remember those times. After a short scene with some IRA men and a priest to ram home the timing, the play opens in a farmhouse kitchen on the morning of the annual harvest and all the menfolk will be out harvesting when their cousins arrive from Derry to help out. The family has it's harvest traditions and we watch these been followed that involve a kite and a goose. It's all normal, small things happening as we meet the extended family over three generations and an adopted English farm worker, all with memories of this special day in their rural calendar.

Then a shadow arrives in the shape of the family priest with news that Quinn's younger brother has been found dead ten years after vanishing. Quinn is head of the family and the farm is his and we realise that Caitlin isn't his wife and mother of the house but she's the wife of his younger brother who's been living with them along with her son. Quinn isn't surprised at the news - he was an IRA man in his youth and understands these things. And then the IRA men appear to ask the family to keep quiet when the news of the body is released to the press.

The darkness gets deeper when we have a scene with the lads of the family and their cousins from Derry who seem to aspire to be the next generation of IRA men. As the drink flows the friendliness of the lads turns to arguments and threats and poison is poured into the ears of Caitlin's son whose father was Quinn's younger brother who was found executed in the peat bogs the day before. The priest has betrayed Caitlin's secrets to the IRA to protect his sister but at the cost of his immortal soul for breaking the laws of the confessional. And then the tragedies strike. It's a powerful and shocking last few minutes that left me needing a deep breath.

It's a very powerful, visceral play with love and death at the centre, family bonds and friendship, of old friends lost and strangers found. It's not all dark, of course and there's some lovely lyrical passages written for some of the characters. One of my favourites was when Aunty Maggie 'came back' and started her story of visiting the fairies in the south at the peak of their war and then goes on to deliver prophecies about how many children the girls will have. She tells us how she saw the banshees years before and, on the morning of the tragedies to come she hears them again. There's still magic in the modern world after all.

The reason for the name of the play becomes clear towards the end of the play when the old uncle is talking to the priest about what might've happened to his nephew's soul in the ten years he's been dead and buried in unconsecrated ground. Then he quotes the classics as lost souls cry out to Charon to ferry them across the Styx but they're condemned to wander the world for a thousand years. It's these little insights, poetic turns and flights of fancy that add to the power of the play.

I'd highly recommend seeing this play if you possibly can. Paddy Considine was excellent as Quinn with Laura Donnelly matching him as sister-in-law Caitlin. The older members of the extended family seemed to have some of the best lines particularly Brid Brennan as Maggie, Dearbhla Molloy as bitter Aunt Pat and Des McAleer as Uncle Patrick. I also liked John Hodgkinson as the strange English farm worker who was adopted into the family years ago. And, of course, the real baby, the baby rabbit and the goose. The whole cast worked well together and gelled as a family both protecting and fighting each other the way families can do. Well done all!

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