When the banshees of the past come calling in Jez Butterworth’s fearsome The Ferryman, you can bet their shrieking will be blood curdling. Directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and opening tonight on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, the Olivier-award-winning play is a stunner, stitching familiar elements of Irish pastoral drama, The Troubles history and Butterworth’s magical, myth-tapping touches into something as powerful as anything on today’s stage.
If nothing else – and, believe me, there is much, much else – The Ferryman cements the playwright’s status as an unrivaled ending-writer, as this tale of a sprawling Irish family reckoning with decades, even centuries, of violence and division spirals to a conclusion that recalls, in its own way, those earth-pounding, theater-shaking footsteps of unseen Giants that closed Butterworth’s transcendent Jerusalem in 2009.
Not that you’ll want to rush a moment of the three hours and 15 minutes that fill The Ferryman with heartrending drama, belly laughs and a foreboding that begins even before the play proper. As the audience enters, two toughies are already on the graffiti-scrawled back alley set, as if to tell us we’re merely dropping into a moment that had its start long before we took notice.
The year is 1981, harvest time in more ways than one as The Troubles in Northern Ireland are approaching a make or break point. Imprisoned hunger strikers are dying for the Irish Republican cause, Margaret Thatcher is about to give voice to her uncompromising “crime is crime is crime” position and, in Derry, a priest has been summoned to this back alley by vicious IRA leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham). The priest is to convey news and a threat to former IRA foot soldier Quinn Carney (Peaky Blinders‘ Paddy Considine, reprising his West End performance along with many others in this 20-odd member cast), now living the family life in rural County Armagh: The news is that the body of Quinn’s long-missing brother Seamus has been found in a bog; the message is that neither Quinn nor anyone in his big, boisterous family is to utter a word of what they know to be true – that Seamus, suspected of being an informant, was murdered by the IRA a decade prior.
This brief prologue is that ticking bomb under a seat that Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of, audience knowledge that casts dread over even the happiest moments of the homey drama about to unfold. As the Carneys prepare for a traditional Harvest Day, with backbreaking work to be followed by a night of celebration – feasting, drinking, dancing and remembering – the playwright carefully and entertainingly introduces us to each and every member of this sturdy, charming clan.
There’s Quinn, the loving father with a past none of his children could imagine (seven in all, from infant to teen); wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), a rather spectral, Mary Tyrone figure who spends most of her time bedridden with non-existent viruses; and Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), Seamus’ widow and no doubt the cause of Mary’s emotional withdrawal – her love with Quinn is so obvious, if unspoken and unconsummated, that we’re caught off guard to learn, early on, that Mary, not Caitlin, is the Carney matriarch.
Also in the household are Caitlin’s impressionable 14-year-old son Oison (Rob Malone) and a trio of Quinn’s ancient-seeming aunts and uncle: Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy), a dour IRA supporter whose undisguised loathing of the English (including the slow-witted Tom Kettle, a longtime family friend and farm worker played by Justin Edwards) stretches back to the death of a beloved brother in the Easter Rising of 1916; Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert), a jovial teller of tales and quoter of Virgil who explains this play’s title; and the wheelchair-bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), so-called because she drifts into lucidity only occasionally to regale the children with tales of her astral projection-like adventures with faeries and banshees, and more earthbound, lusty memories of the beautiful lad she coveted in youth (“I swear to Christ I could have ridden that boy from here to Connemara,” she tells the delighted girls, who can match her salty language with ease).
Finally, there are three teenage cousins (Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeill, Michael Quinton McArthur) who make their annual visit from the city to help with the harvest work and join the celebration, but this year bring a disquieting fervor for the cause that Quinn has tried so hard to keep away from his family. The outside world is creeping in, even before the arrival at the farmhouse of Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), the IRA kingpin Muldoon and his henchmen.
To reveal more would be indefensible, as Butterworth, under the impeccable direction of Mendes, with a flawless cast from young to old (including Fra Fee, Niall Wright and Carla Langley as the eldest Carneys), detail-perfect sets and costumes from Rob Howell, takes this play in directions you won’t see coming. The Ferryman toys with what it knows we know – an exuberant Irish jig can’t help but remind of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, until it goes full-out punk. The gentle Of Mice and Men danger of Tom Kettle, the bloody shocks we’ve seen from the likes of Martin McDonagh – everything gets rearranged, and you just might gasp at the power and poetry that brings The Ferryman to a close even as you know it had to come to this.