Arts and Culture Editor
Jez Butterworth’s sprawling family drama, ‘The Ferryman’, takes audiences into 1981 Northern Ireland, into the house of the Carney family as they plan for their annual family harvest. What begins as a time of celebration and hope for the Carneys quickly turns into something much darker. The family’s head, Quinn Carney (Brian d’Arcy James), encounters a figure from his past life: a soldier named Muldoon (Ralph Brown) in the rebellious fighting group, The IRA. At the beginning of the play, Quinn has abandoned his life as a soldier and is now a family man. The visit from Muldoon makes him question and uncover his hidden demons. This epic slowly unfolds into a gripping tale of political intrigue, murder, grief and suspense.
Brian d’Arcy James is a commanding presence as Quinn Carney. As the play begins, the audience sees his softer side as he takes care of his family in preparation for the harvest. He also shows a bit of humor and levity in his early scenes with his sister in law, Caitlin (Holley Fain). As the character is forced to confront his dangerous past, the audience slowly sees the character unravel and breakdown. James manages this characters complex arc expertly, taking his time and truly being in the moment. In Quinn, the audience has a worthy guide into this complicated tale.
Holley Fain is an emotional powerhouse as Caitlin Carney. For much of the play, the character is on an emotional rollercoaster as she grieves over the recent passing of her husband Shamos. It is learned early on that Shamos has been missing for ten years. This tragic news absolutely wrecks Caitlin, as she did try to keep hope for herself and her family that he was out there somewhere. Fain tells Caitlin’s tragic tale with the respect and gravitas that it deserves. As the character cries for her deceased husband in the play’s first act, Fain displays heartbreaking vulnerability and truly lets the audience into the character’s heart and soul. Caitlin’s storyline complicates throughout as she encounters her possible romantic feelings for Quinn in the wake of her loss. This is such a complex role that Butterworth wrote, and Fain delivers an unforgettable turn as this troubled but strong woman.
Emily Bergl is particularly excellent as Quinn’s wife, Mary. After having seven children, the character of Mary for much of the play is understandably sick and tired. As the piece goes on, Bergl’s Mary uncovers secrets of her own. Bergl manages this arc very well. Shuler Hensley is a standout as the slow and kind hearted family friend, Tom Kettle. Fionnula Flanagan also gives a quietly affecting performance as Aunt Maggie Far Away, the family’s’ distant folk tale spewing grandmother. Aunt Maggie gives the play much of its symbolism. Some other standouts include Ann McDonough as the strong republican, Aunt Patricia Carney, Jack Difalco as the rebellious Shane Corcoran, Ethan Dubin as Oisin Carney and Fred Applegate as the warmly funny, Uncle Patrick Carney. This sensational cast of 21 actors are all uniformly excellent. They are a true ensemble, and all absolutely enthrall as Butterworth very generously gives every character a chance to shine in the spotlight.
With ‘The Ferryman’, Butterworth establishes himself as a master of storytelling. His piece is an intimate family drama and love story told on a grand scale. This is a three hour and fifteen minute play, but in Butterworth’s experienced hands not one minute is wasted. The play’s initial scenes are ones of celebration and lightness as the family prepares for the harvest. This light and joyous atmosphere is quickly given up with the entrance of the menacing Muldoon. After the audience and characters learn of Quinn’s tricky past and his brother’s death, a complicated wave of intrigue begins as everyone is trying to figure out who murdered Quinn’s brother. Butterworth takes his time letting revelations slowly unfold with deeply satisfying ease. As the audience learn of these messy pasts and intriguing backstories, Butterworth carefully prepares the audience for the explosive conclusion. Although one or two scenes may run a bit too long, his ambitious ideas and compelling family and political drama is just brilliant and shows the work of a modern force of the theatre.
Sam Mendes’s thoughtful direction is as much a spectacle as the play itself. With a towering yet realistic house set by Rob Howell, startlingly crisp and raw lighting by Peter Mumford and hauntingly atmospheric sound and compositions by Nick Powell, Mendes creates an environment that feels as complicated and enthralling as life itself. The way Mendes gracefully choreographs this massive cast through the story is nothing short of miraculous. He never tries to trick the audience with bold lighting or gimmicks. Even the live animals and infant that appear in the play feel incredibly natural and organically woven into the story.
One of his smartest moments of direction is in his handling of Flannagan’s Aunt Maggie’s tale of lost love that she tells to the young girls of the family. In this extended sequence, Mendes keeps the creative designs simple and lets Flannagan’s outstanding acting and Butterworth’s compelling words speak for themselves. This scene alone is a masterclass in theatrical storytelling and is a breath of fresh air. His direction throughout is excellent and contributes greatly to the wonders of this stunning play.
With a strong cast, a staggeringly brilliant script by Butterworth, and masterful storytelling by all, this is a play that truly has something for everybody. Theatre on this grand of a scale does not come around too often. It is a modern masterpiece and a true theatrical event in every sense of the word.