Jez Butterworth’s new play was always going to cause a stir, writes Cormac Rae
As contemporary playwrights go, Jez Butterworth is amongst the most celebrated. His award winning production of Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance made him a household name. And The Ferryman, a play about a rural Irish family’s struggle to retain a sense of normality amidst The Troubles - his most talked-about production to date - is similarly barn storming.
With delicious plot twists and likeable lead characters, Butterworth and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Skyfall) combine to create an authentic, yet somewhat dreamlike family environment that’s intermittently interrupted by villainous hard-men and some seriously bad news.
Set in May 1981, in a rural country house in County Armagh, the Catholic Carney family attempt to maintain some semblance of normality within a fraught political backdrop that threatens to drive them apart. An ailing marriage seems likely to undermine their hard won serenity, but it is news of a death that ultimately upends their relatively peaceful world.
Inspired by Butterworth’s own Irish heritage, and the real life disappearance of Eugene Simmons; the play oscillates between light-hearted family games on the one hand and psychopathic outbursts from fringe characters on the other.
Yet rather than attempting to grind the audience down with gritty social realism, this is a stylised and colourful play that’s a joy to watch. Indeed, it may one day be described as vintage Butterworth.
The plot, and the feel of The Ferryman is somewhere between Juno and The Paycock (Seán O'Casey) and A History of Violence (David Cronenberg) - a potent blend of brutality and light-hearted humour. The commanding performance by Owen McDonnell as Quinn Carney is matched by a heart wrenching performance by Rosalie Craig as Caitlin Carney. The loveable Tom Kettle, played joyously by Justin Edwards, provides much needed comic relief from material that often veers into very challenging territory. Within the context of Butterworth’s well crafted heightened realism, this fanciful portrayal of rural Irish family life seems reasonable and far from offensive –despite the inevitable complaints from some critics.
The Ferryman’s plot manipulates expectations, keeping emotions on tenterhooks. And what the play lacks in realism, it makes up for with warmth. The dream combination of a blockbuster director, a renowned playwright, and a brilliant cast couldn’t possible disappoint, and The Ferryman doesn’t. If you missed the first run, then you really should go and see the extended run - in the West End until May 19th - before it transfers to Broadway in October.
Cormac Rae is a graduate journalist at Spear’s