Friday, 12 May 2017

The Ferryman

A stunning saga about a rural Northern Irish family – and their secret loves and losses

Written by Georgina Brown
Big, bold, baggy and brilliant, Jez Butterworth’s new play, The Ferryman, begins as a thriller. In a Derry back-street, sprayed with Republican graffiti, a scary leather-jacketed smoothie threatens a squirming priest to leak the confessional’s secrets. We’re in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The latest addition to the Carney family is called Bobby, presumably after Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who starved himself in the Maze prison, condemned by Mrs Thatcher who called him a criminal, but a hero for anyone with Georgina-Brown-colour-176Republican sympathies.

The Troubles, however, seem a world away from the farmhouse in Armagh where Quinn Carney has 50 acres and the extended Carney clan of elderly aunts and an uncle, strapping lads and excited tots are preparing for the harvest feast. The goose they’ve been fattening has done a runner, though Tom Kettle, the apparently simple but very capable farmhand, is on the case.

One of the boys, in a rage, has smashed the kite he made for the little ones. Uncle Pat is at the whisky and talking mainly to himself about Virgil’s Ferryman, Charon, who is forbidden from taking the unburied or liars to the Underworld. Sour old-school Republican Aunt Pat can’t keep her hatred of the English to herself, and Aunt Maggie Faraway is wittering on about the only love in her life, for a 17-year-old lad with a glorious mane of hair.

Mary, mother of the seven Carneys, is upstairs in her bed, as usual, claiming she has a virus. Meanwhile Caitlyn Carney, who has lived with the family since her husband, Seamus, disappeared a decade ago, is cooking and coping and keeping her head amid all the teasing and tantrums. Then the priest brings news that Seamus’s body has been found pickled in a bog, shot in the head. And another uninvited guest arrives: the black-jacketed bully.

At its strongly beating heart, this is a play about the impossibility of burying the past forever or extinguishing a burning passion. For it’s not just Aunt Maggie Faraway who cherishes a secret love, made all the more sacred for never being spoken of.

Director Sam Mendes, back in the theatre after making the Bond movies, expertly marshals a vast cast of 21 plus the show-stealing baby, live rabbits and the goose. There are no big names, but every performer is a star. Funny, shocking, expertly plotted, richly detailed, utterly compelling, tremendously atmospheric, while it may not have the wild originality of Jerusalem, it is undoubtedly the finest play of the year.

The Ferryman runs until 20 May at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1, then transfers to the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 from 20 June to 7 October: 020-7565 5000,

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