It is harvest-time in rural Derry, 1981. The Carney family seem role models for all that is good about farming life. They are working hard, ready to play hard in a traditional end-of-harvest celebratory meal. However, the man of the house, Quinn (Paddy Considine) has an IRA past, which is about to catch-up with him. The IRA is benefiting from a wave of public sympathy in response to the deaths of 10 hunger strikers, but this is in danger of being undermined by the finding of Quinn’s brother Seamus’s body, a man executed some 10 years earlier. Paramilitary leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) needs to get Quinn’s assurance that he will not give details to the press. Quinn, a father of seven, has to finally face the reality of his brother Seamus’s death, a man he had persuaded to join the IRA – and deal with his widow Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) who, with her son, has been living with the Carney’s since Seamus’s disappearance. From the outset it is clear that Quinn and Caitlin have developed a close relationship, enhanced by the supposed infirmity of Quinn’s wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly).
Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The Ferryman, has then, at its heart, some deep issues of family loyalty as well much to say about the Troubles. The issues are tackled with great sensitivity and the play manages much humour while being continually gripping. There are, however, perhaps too many issues to be tackled in one play. Having some of the younger wider family members get drawn into the revolutionary republican cause does contribute, but add in a senile grand-mother (who lapses into great insight) a rabidly anti-British aunt and an whimsical uncle, seemingly in denial, and we get a little close to overload. On top of this, there is an English simpleton and a feint-hearted priest.
Director Sam Mendes manages to help keep an overall balance, but he is not helped by the only interval in a 3 and a quarter hour play coming just one hour in. There is a lot to digest and the pace might be helped by a reduction of the harvest celebrations, which have a similar effect to the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter.
Nevertheless, the dialogue never fails to crackle and there is genuine suspense. There are also some standout performances particularly from Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly. Mendes and Butterworth are not averse to taking risks, and having babe in arms frequently on stage, as well as a goose and a rabbit, will undoubtedly present the actors with some challenges.
The Ferryman runs at the Royal Court until 20th May, and is the fastest selling production in its history. It transfers to the West End in June.