theater review

Theater Review: Livestock and Stock Types in The Ferryman

The cast of The Ferryman (sans bird), at the Jacobs. Photo: 2018 Joan Marcus

We might as well start with the goose. By the time one of the more than 20 actors in Jez Butterworth’s boisterous behemoth of a new play, The Ferryman, enters with a fat, live goose under his arm — its little rubbery feet paddling gently in the air as it calmly tries to eat a button off its captor’s duffle coat — the audience is done for. We’ve already been treated to a real baby (the play has a rotating cast of four angelic, pliable infants representing the youngest member of its story’s central family) and a real rabbit, pulled from the capacious pockets of the very actor who eventually serves as goose-bearer. You can practically smell the dopamine gushing through the theater. Our brains, our bodies, are being irrepressibly triggered and we love it. That baby, that bunny, that goose! They give us the pleasurable shock of the real, the unfakeable, in a necessarily artificial world, and they go a long way towards convincing us of that world’s essential, if not literal, reality — of its gritty, fleshy, tangible truthiness.

But the farther you get away from The Ferryman, the more the rush starts to subside, and the more the play’s emotional mechanics are exposed. Landing splashily on Broadway after raking in euphoric notices from seemingly every critic in London, the three-and-a-half-hour epic yarn about a Northern Irish family grappling with risen ghosts, secret desire, and fermenting violence during the Troubles is a frankly fascinating mixture of prodigious craftsmanship and brazen cultural and dramatic cliché. It pushes every high-drama button and checks every shamrock-shaped box, and Butterworth’s writerly skill — his sense for build and climax and his raconteur’s gift for abundant, colorful language — is almost enough to dazzle us into submission. Almost. Though he and director Sam Mendes (with whom Butterworth worked as a writer on the James Bond film Spectre) are aided by a huge ensemble of uniformly fantastic actors, and though The Ferryman contains many genuinely exhilarating moments, the show itself is like an enormous version of that goose: It works on you, and eventually you start to realize how it’s working on you, the levers it’s pulling, the pleasure centers it’s poking. And its Irishness — which walks a knife-edge between robust authenticity and lyrical exaggeration — starts to slip towards blarney.

As an English playwright, Butterworth was originally hesitant to write a play set in Northern Ireland, but eventually yielded to the call of an irresistible story. His partner, the actor Laura Donnelly, who gives a nuanced, fiery performance at the center of The Ferryman, had an uncle who was disappeared by the IRA, and whose body was found preserved in a peat bog three years after he vanished. “That’s a powerful word. Vanishing,” says Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), the patriarch of the expansive Carney clan, whom The Ferryman follows over the course of a tempestuous day and night in late August 1981. The Carneys — father, mother, seven children, two aunts, one uncle, Quinn’s sister-in-law Caitlin, and her son Oisin — are bringing in the harvest on their Armagh farm, along with their cousins, the three Corcoran brothers. It’s a day of hard work followed by celebration, and forty miles away, in Belfast, it’s also the day that Michael Devine, the tenth and last of the Irish Republican hunger-strikers, will starve to death in prison. And it’s the day that Caitlin (Donnelly) will finally learn the fate of her husband, Quinn’s younger brother, who disappeared ten years ago. In a menacing, noir-ish prologue, we see a timorous priest, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), meet with an IRA headman called Jimmy Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and his two thugs. The body of Seamus Carney has been found pickled in peat, Timex wristwatch and rosary beads intact, bullet hole in the back of his skull. Horrigan is the Carneys’ family priest. The IRA men want his assistance in ensuring that — in this moment of “unprecedented global focus” on the demands for Irish liberation — the Carneys don’t make a fuss over Seamus. The murder can’t come back to the IRA. Things will have to be forgotten, sacrifices made, in the greater cause of justice. Or else.

Along with the steadily mounting threat to the Carneys in the person of Muldoon, Butterworth weaves in plentiful threads both political and personal, plus a heavy (like, Christmas-dinner heavy) helping of poetic symbolism. Quinn’s wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), has also “vanished,” in a way, continuing to bear children but withdrawing from the family, hovering upstairs like a ghost in a white nightgown, constantly bedridden with psychosomatic viruses. For years, it’s been the spirited, dependable Caitlin who’s cooked the food, kept the house straight, and juggled the herd of Carney children, and it’s clear from scene one that she and Quinn carry a secret torch for each other. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s brooding son Oisin (Rob Malone, whose character is named for Irish mythology’s Orpheus figure, who makes an ill-fated visit to the underworld) spies in doorways, the Corcoran boys strut and brag about becoming IRA foot-soldiers, a neurodivergent English foundling called Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) helps out on the Carney farm and sighs over Caitlin, Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) philosophizes and drinks Bushmills for breakfast, Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) stews in republican fervor and bitter hatred for Margaret Thatcher, and Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) sits in the corner of the stage with a vacant stare, sporadically returning to lucidity to tell fairy-tales, predict the future, and sing snatches of Yeats poems.

Though Flanagan makes Aunt Maggie into a compelling storyteller when she “comes back” from her mental journeys (that’s how the Carney children phrase it), the character is essentially theme-spouting set dressing. She floats into the action conveniently, to draw a magical circle around big ideas like star-crossed love, or the cycle of violence and revenge, or the unquiet souls of the legions of dead that haunt Ireland’s long history of oppression at the hands of the English. She talks about banshees and fairy battles, and also swears lustily as she rhapsodizes about a boy she loved in her youth, specifically about how she “could have ridden [him] from here to Connemara. And back.” The young Carney girls sit rapt at her feet, treating her like a profane prophetess. And the audience is likewise enraptured: Aunt Maggie, like The Ferryman overall, embodies so many of our seductive notions of Ireland. The play is awash in romantic motifs played at maximum volume — the lush mysticism and winking ribaldry, the ghost stories and glamor and earthy wisdom, the colorful cursing and constant drinking (both given increased hilarity when performed, as they frequently are, by the kids), the wild bursts of step dancing, brought up short by the solemn singing of “Erin go Bragh” in honor of those fallen for the cause of freedom.

And we feel all of it: This stuff, especially to certain sensibilities, is catnip. I freely admit to being among the susceptible. I grew up with a full-blown Yeats obsession, a penchant for fairy-tales, and a fixation on James Joyce that led me, in high school, to wear a three-piece suit with ivy pinned to the lapel on October 6. Watching The Ferryman, I could feel myself responding chemically, even as my brain remained aware of a litany of overripe cultural stereotypes. I don’t want to call it appropriation — I’m very wary of arguments that limit writers to writing only of their own ultra-specific identities and experiences, and it seems clear that Butterworth entered into his project aware of its many complexities. I can’t help feeling, though, that some of those complexities got washed away in a rush of nostalgia, of excitement over the image of a Super-Irish Ireland.

Tellingly, it isn’t just the cultural milieu that tempts him into questionable territory. The Ferryman’s English character, Tom Kettle, is also a shameless conscript from Central Casting, as well as the second possibly autistic gentle giant lumbering across a New York stage this fall (Conor McPherson provides the other in Girl From the North Country). It feels a little weird, and a little easy, that Butterworth hangs a lot of his thematic exposition on one of his mentally different characters (Maggie) and a lot of plot instigation on the other one (Tom). And it feels downright icky when — at the play’s inevitably bloody climax — this kindly, poetry-quoting, bunny-carrying lonelyhearts commits a shattering and, by its very nature, prolonged act of violence. Nothing in Tom Kettle’s nature has hinted at brutality, but Butterworth takes the well-worn and dangerous road of equating a character who’s on some sort of spectrum with a character that can become an animal when the plot requires it.

What keeps us engaged with Tom as a human being and not as a device is Edwards’s delicate, immensely poignant performance. In the hands of lesser actors, some of The Ferryman’s cleverly built gimmickry might be easier to spot, but here, the masterful ensemble gives Butterworth’s undeniably juicy text the fuel and lift of a fighter jet. There’s not a shaky player in the bunch, from Donnelly’s steadfast, wild-hearted Caitlin to Considine’s slow-burning Quinn; from Molloy’s zealous, harrowingly acidic Aunt Pat (she’d make a killer Queen Margaret in Richard III) to Tom Glynn-Carney’s cocky Shane Corcoran, a pugnacious cool-kid and IRA recruit whose descent into drunken, terrified childishness makes us bristle with pity and revulsion. The Carney kids are also a pack of brilliant young talents, with Fra Fee’s perceptive, playful, not-to-be-bullied Michael and the ridiculously adorable Matilda Lawler’s salty, inquisitive Honor (excuse me, she much prefers “Cleopatra”) as standouts.

Mendes is at his best in the moment-to-moment work with these instinctive, powerful performers. Scenes like the rowdy, choric introduction of the Carney children, or the confrontation that flares up amongst the Carney and Corcoran boys as they get high on whiskey and war stories, crackle with narrative force and verbal flair. The boys’ late-night bravado, which starts The Ferryman’s third act, makes for one of the play’s best scenes: The voices feel sharp and present, the mix of humor and morbidity feels rich and real, and the political and familial tensions are palpably electric. (Butterworth, who, along with Mark Rylance, blew minds on Broadway in 2011 with Jerusalem, is on his home turf with this kind of energetic swagger.) I wish that more of the significant scenes involving The Ferryman’s women felt this alive. Unfortunately, despite Donnelly’s ferocity, Caitlin’s eventual declaration of love for Quinn sounds Hollywoodish and maudlin — “I love you more than the future. Because in the future, we cannot be. So kiss me, and then it is the future. Where we are not. Where we can never be.” And as Mary, the ghost-in-the-attic invalid wife, O’Reilly’s got to deliver some of the play’s big-lick-iest dialogue, which Mendes has her fill with tortured wistfulness and pregnant pauses: “I didn’t know the words to say to make you smile. I did … once.

In exchanges like these, Mendes treats the play like one of his James Bond movies: The emotional register gets overblown, as if underscored with dark violins. The director is also more cinematic than theatrical in his handling of The Ferryman’s dramatic flow. Sometimes it works — as with the smash blackout and blaring of the Rolling Stones that follow the prologue, in the manner of a film’s opening credits sequence — but often it doesn’t. Few things bother me more than finding out that a long play is going to have “one 15-minute intermission following Act 1 and a brief 3-minute pause following Act 2.” I love epic! Give me epic! But figure out your transitions. Figure out how to use the stage as a stage, not as a movie that annoyingly lacks the ability to jump-cut. I don’t want to see a crew — even one as diligent as The Ferryman’s — emerge in the half-dark in that “3-minute pause,” to do an unnecessary amount of candle-lighting and furniture-shifting. Especially not when the action on either side of this business occurs on the same night, in the same place. No amount of eerie background music (from sound designer Nick Powell) will help preserve the swell of tension at the end of The Ferryman’s second act, which Mendes deflates by not pursuing more theatrical seamlessness.

As the Carneys’ long day’s journey proceeds, Butterworth’s three acts get progressively more overwrought, more dependent on trope, contrivance, and symbolism. Do we really need Uncle Pat to recite to us straight out of Virgil, making explicit the title’s inherent mythological freightage? Do we really buy former IRA loyalist Quinn’s gangster-movie patter with Muldoon (“I told you I wanted out. I told you why. I said I had enough blood on my hands”)? Is it any surprise that the gun Aunt Pat keeps under her bed, a heartbreaking souvenir from a brother who died in the Easter Rising, will make a dire reappearance?

The devil of it all is that is that, both despite and because of its flagrant use of formula, The Ferryman hooks us by the gills and pulls us along. After all, are we not entertained? There’s a live goose, for God’s sake. In the wake of the play’s frantic, lurid, pull-out-all-the-stops-and-knock-down-all-the-pins conclusion (which makes the whole play feel like the prequel to an as-yet-unwritten bloodbath blockbuster called The Wrath of Quinn), the audience rocketed to its feet — and I got the reaction — even though, when I stopped to think about it, at least three different elements of the story’s catastrophic final 60 seconds left me wondering, “Wait, but why?” In a sense, set and costume designer Rob Howell’s rendering of the Carneys’ farmhouse, with its barrage of meticulous detail and its absurdly outsize proportions, is the perfect metaphor for the play itself: It’s a head-trippy presentation of rich, authentic-seeming texture inside a romanticized, larger-than-life box — a gourmet meal by a very clever chef that somehow gives us the same uneasy satisfaction as do Lucky Charms. “That just … almost looked right,” said the friend who saw it with me, whose family lives in Donegal, “and … almost felt right. But … ”

That “But.” No matter the delights and thrills of the play, and there are many, it’s always there. How green is The Ferryman’s uncanny valley.

The Ferryman is at the Jacobs Theatre through February 17.

Theater Review: Livestock and Stock Types in The Ferryman