By Suzannah Ball
Jez Butterworth captures the jolly stereotype of a large Irish family in his new play ‘The Ferryman’. Having premiered at the Royal Court, The Ferryman became the fastest selling show in the theatre’s history – it has achieved marvellous critical reviews and captured the hearts of those who’ve watched it in communal mourning. I had few expectations as I ventured into London: I knew little about its context and even less about Butterworth, but as I watched I knew I was at the mercy of his compelling narrative.
Whilst I only became familiar with the IRA as it hung over the head of Jeremy Corbyn during the most recent general election, for the Irish its existence is all too familiar. ‘The Ferryman’ raises the bubbling truth of the past to the surface and then sweeps it away under a rug of blood.
‘The Ferryman’ is immense in scope, with a huge and beautiful set, and a large range of animals and cast members. It appears to wish to touch every aspect of being, from life to death, from love to heartbreak, from goose to rabbit to live baby – and it succeeds. The audience immediately learns of the death of Seamus Carney, the husband of the beautiful but obviously tormented Caitlyn [Sarah Greene], and from there on the story is surrounded by the battle between England and Ireland, or more accurately Ireland and Ireland.
The massive and intergenerational cast of 20, which includes a real-life baby, elegantly interact as they represent the seven stages of man. Much of the comedy comes from the children blurting out foul language, and although some older Americans from my party were faced with utter shock at these exclamations, it provided me with ample amusement. It could have been ridiculously cheesy – the whole family running after a goose in a wild-goose-chase (ha-ha), the mad and enjoyably embarrassing dancing to rock music, the mafia style entrance of the IRA itself – but it wasn’t.
I was one of the first to witness the new Quin Carney and co., as many of the original leads announced they would be not be continuing past the show’s original West End run dates. So, Paddy Considine became Will Houston (the crowd still gave a standing ovation). The new Tom Kettle, Ivan Kaye, does a brilliant job at portraying the not-so-gentle giant. Butterworth compels his audience to feel for the one English character, who happens to bear a strong resemblance to Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and the audience is consequently instilled with a naively disturbed sense of England. Is this how Ireland sees Englishmen? Or is it how they want us to be? Unaware, unintellectual and brutish, even initially innocent perhaps? Complicating Kettle’s character, he is the one who eventually pulls the trigger, defeating the Carneys’ already dwindling happiness, and setting the scene of ‘The Ferryman’.
The play itself is a long three hours, filled with domestic disputes and the unpleasant bickering of teenage boys who believe themselves feverishly adult enough to fight in the battle between good and evil. Perhaps it could’ve finished a little earlier. The eruption of young boys needing to fight for what they believe in was unpleasant, and didn’t quite hit the mark of patriotism – missing it by a few years of adolescence.
Alongside this, the shadow of the IRA looms over a society which lacks support from a Thatcher government convinced that ‘crime is crime is crime’. This is kept in sharp focus, until it’s not, and ‘The Ferryman’ becomes a moving family trauma which left me enthralled, yet always anxious.
The Ferryman is at the Gieldgus Theatre, London, until 19th May 2018. Get your tickets at theferrymanplay.com
Featured image: Royal Court Theatre