Review: The Ferryman, Royal Court Theatre ‘Shattering, Steeped in Irish History’

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Nobody can tell a story like the Irish. The art of storytelling is in their blood. It is part of the very fabric of their culture. And all that heritage, all that illustrious history of passing down tales through the generations, of stories woven together from fact and fiction, is beautifully represented in this masterpiece from Jez Butterworth that not only celebrates and pays homage to this tradition, but is constructed just the same.

Set in a rural farmhouse, the Carney family is preparing for harvest. And as the adults fuss to ensure operations run smoothly, the elders entertain the young ones with yarns that blend Irish legends and folklore with fantasy and fact. Some are faerie stories, some are stories of long lost love. But all are stories of trauma and loss. And war.

For this is Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1981 – not the most peaceful of times. Not that Ireland has known much peace. But the joyous celebrations are about to be crushed when an event brings the war raging all around them into their own kitchen.

The head of the family, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is informed that the body of his brother who’d been missing for a decade, has been found in a bog with a bullet in his head. For Seamus Carney was one of the Disappeared, and the discovery of his body not only ruptures the fragile skin that had begun to heal over the wound in his family, but it will set off a chain of events that promises to irreparably destroy the uneasy peace in the household.

You see, Quinn is no fool. Nor is he an Irishman without a past. He knows the IRA; he knows them very well indeed. And he knows this was no accidental discovery. The fate of his brother has been revealed for a reason – and the IRA is about to come knocking on his door, calling in a favour.

Director Sam Mendes and Jez Butterworth have delivered a production that is warm and heartfelt, yet you really feel the weight of Ireland’s history here. For this pattern of broken families and violent lives has lasted for generations. The ghosts of Ireland’s dead, that are kept alive in these stories and histories that are passed down through the generations, continue to haunt the living. Their presence lingers heavy in the air, like the restless, suffering spirits in Virgil’s Aeneid who are denied their final journey by the Ferryman to rest in peace in the afterlife for their bodies have not received proper burial in the world they have departed.

There is no healing to be found here. The Ferryman is a powerful testament to the pervasiveness of violence and moral corruption, to the lot of the oppressed who must suffer, and who then become instigators of the violence they are seeking to combat. For fire with fire only leads to destruction.

I marvel at Jez Butterworth’s writing. This must have taken him years to piece together, to layer and to intertwine. The cast is huge – over a dozen characters – and each has their own path and choices to make. And the themes of history and justice, of violence and retribution, of the past and the future, are to be found wherever you look.

There can be no doubt that this is a masterpiece. Nor is there any doubt that this will, rightly, be laden with awards come year end. For this is a profoundly affecting production. A play for Ireland, of Ireland. One that fits seamlessly into the extraordinary history of Irish literature, and a show rich in Irish culture and heritage, and steeped in the blood of Irish history.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to May 20, 2017

Gielgud Theatre, London, June 20 to October 7, 2017

All production images by Johan Persson

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