This is storytelling at its most intricate and expansive. There isn’t a moment that should be sliced away, nor a visual you’d want to miss. It’s a delicate creation, this brand new play carted over to Broadway from its celebrated run in the West End after being praised widely at The Royal Court Theatre. The Ferryman has so many levels and stories to widdle out, each enhancing the other like flavors in a Jameson Irish whiskey, blending aromically for all to savor, or swigging a shot down to feel the lovely yet harsh sting on the back of the throat. Directed with extreme elegance and directness by the talented Sam Mendes (NT’s The Lehman Trilogy), Jez Butterworth’s heroic tale of love. loss, defiance, and heartbreak, dipped in the aroma of Northern Ireland circa 1981, awash in the captivating art of stories and memories, rings deep and as powerful as anything you have seen in years. It’s epic and old-fashioned, only in the way that it feels like a classic before it even gets midway through, making you wonder if this is actually new or a brilliant revival of an Irish masterpiece.
Having seen The Ferryman in the West End last Christmas, I knew what I was in for, although my memory was a bit hazy. I had not been looking forward to the theatrical evening as I had been battling some sort of 48 hour virus while in London, and had spent the last few days propped up in bed, eating soup, and feeling nauseous every time I tried to lie down fully. I was exhausted and the idea of an Irish play lasting over three hours wasn’t sitting well on my throbbing head, but I knew that there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to see this three-time Olivier Award winning drama (best new play, best director/Mendes, best actress/Donnelly). The first scene is a tease and a ploy, starting out the drama powerfully before we even realize it has begun. On some alleyway in Derry, Father Horrigan, played deceitfully well by Charles Dale (BBC’s ‘Casualty‘), has been summoned and ushered by two strong arms (Glenn Speers,Dean Ashton)into a meeting with the impressively menacing Muldoon, portrayed solidly by Stuart Graham (Almeida’s Silver Tassie). A bound mummified corpse of a man familiar to Father Horrigan, lost for a decade, has been found in a bog, and Muldoon, for reasons unknown, wants him to deliver the news to the dead man’s wife, Caitlin, and brother, Quinn Carney, but more importantly, he demands to know all that the father can tell him about Quinn, whether he wants to or not.
The second time viewing (with a clearer mind) the scene, the intrigue struck me as something far deeper in meaning then when I first experienced it. I remember wondering about that interplay long after, as it didn’t seem to fit so neatly into the rest. Maybe that’s the beauty of it, shaking us out and around a preconceived notion of what’s in store, as the rest of play takes place solidly in a very different space and emotionality. Designed with a depth of focus and vision by Rob Howell (Bristol Old Vic/BAM’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night), The Ferryman throws us quite joyfully into the rock and rolling interaction between a handsome man and a very sensually beauty, engaged in some late night (or is it early morning) drinking and playing. Blinded by the festivities, the entry into the rural home of Quinn Carney is a flaming twist that sets us off-balance. It’s so different from what we just saw, but we know there must be a connective tissue that will come back, in good time, to play havoc with this family.
The handsome leading man, deliciously playing games at the kitchen table, is the father and center of this band of merry farmers. We heard his name earlier, Quinn Carney, played robustly and seductively by the powerhouse Paddy Considine (“Journeyman“) spoken with malcontent by those men in the first scene, but we can’t quite find the fearful quality quite yet. He seems carefree and filled with spirit (s), as he blindly dances and drinks the night away, celebrating the upcoming harvest with his equally playful sister-in-law, Caitlin Carney, portrayed magnificently by the engaging Laura Donnelly (Broadway’s The River). It’s hard to ignore their chemistry, as they embrace the joy of the Stones, and the game of life that is before them. One by one, the large Irish Carney clan comes flowing down the stairs and rolling in from the sides. The sun is filling the room with splendor and warmth, and the excitement of the day is building, just as beautifully as the light flowing in through the windows, courtesy of the gorgeous moody lighting by Peter Mumford (Broadway’s The Children) and solid sound design and composition by Nick Powell (Royal Court’s Unreachable). All of the cast and design crew is perfection, literally filling the stage with authenticity and dimension that can’t be ignored.
The women run the gamut, portraying all levels of engagement and creation, even when positioned within the domestic and powerless position of only responding to the actions of the men in their lives. Floating down the stairs lazily is the detached and quietly angry mother Mary Carney, played with soft edge and disdain by the wonderful Genevieve O’Reilly (Donmar’s Splendour). Her entrance fills the void with answers to questions that were floating around the passion that filled the earlier scene. She’s part of one of the pairs of polar opposites that fill out this familial dynamic, leading us forward to a dance between pleading man and a jealously quiet wife that has been aging itself for a decade, like Bushmills in a wooden barrel. The other pairing, sitting opposite from one another, filling out the historic void of feminine involvement carries some of the best moments, packing a pistol both comically and emotionally. Aunt Patricia, played dynamically by the glorious Dearbhla Molloy (ATC’s Cripple of Inishmaan) enters draped in black and tuned into the radio waiting with snarling breath for a broadcast speech from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher regarding the Republican inmates in the Maze Prison who have been on hunger strike to demand recognition as political prisoners. Staring, but vacantly in the distant frame is Aunt Maggie Far Away, portrayed beautifully by the elegant Fionnula Flanagan (“The Others“), living in a dream-like state that comes and goes, but always greeted with glee when she does finally step back into the room. They both are impressive in their storytelling skills, and their yarns of personal sorrow and the occasionally dip into passion are wrapped in pain to their very souls. They both give a portrait of love and heartbreak, especially Aunt Maggie’s story of love’s defeat that can hypnotize Quinn’s gaggle of children, all beautifully and charmingly played by Carla Langley (Shena with baby Bobby in tow), Matilda Lawler (Honor), Willow McCarthy (Mercy), Brooklyn Shuck (Nuna/Nuala). It’s poignant and compelling, tying us closely in and forcing us to lean in to the loss so entirely, that we are one and the same with those children. “I swear to Christ,” Aunt Maggie concludes sweetly to her enraptured audience (including us) gathered at her feet, “I could have ridden that boy from here to Connemara.”
Uncle Patrick Carney, played deliciously by Mark Lambert (LC’s Aristocrats) weaves a fun tale as well, even against the sharp wit and tongue of Aunt Patricia. He’s in a jolly festive mood, as this particular day is one to celebrate. It’s a day for family tradition and a feast unlike any other. There is work to be done, and a goose to be killed and cooked. The young men of the family, the sons of Quinn, run wild with excitement as they try to track down the runaway bird. The second oldest, the handsome Michael, played exquisitely by the dark curly-haired Fra Fee (Union’s The Fix) and the eldest, James Joyce, played boyishly by the solid Niall Wright (Lyric/Belfast’s Macbeth) argue and banter as only two young men and brothers can. Their joy is infectious to all, except their cousin, the son of Caitlin, Oisin Carney, played feistily by Rob Malone (2nd Age’s Hamlet), who hides and wanders around like a complicated rebellious teen looking for validation and maturity without wanting to engage.
The brothers Corcoran have come into town on a bus this morning to help with the harvest. Shane Corcoran, played with pitiful cockiness by Tom Glynn-Carney (“Dunkirk“), the eager and hilarious younger brother, Diarmaid, delightfully portrayed by Conor MacNeill (Broadway’s The Cripple of Inishmaan), and the wickedly funny young Declan, perfect and comically played by the expressive Michael Quinton McArthur (‘Kevin Can Wait‘) fill out the working clan, adding a layer of aggressiveness and desperate swagger that electrifies and unleashes a wildness of young male posturing that has horrific results. The drinking and the combative engagement rise uncontrollably to dizzying heights of unknown destruction, daring us to try to imagine what will come of this pushing and prodding. The colliding immature masculinity is as telling as the whole political stance of Ireland, distilled down into the fire of a young man’s deadly desire to be seen as a warrior, powerful and unafraid, while shaking and pining for some form of paternal adoration and acceptance.
Lastly, there is the sweetness and gentleness of Tom Kettle, played effortlessly by the talented Justin Edwards (“Love and Friendship“), as an orphaned Englishman, towering over all in strength and loyalty, but no where near the others in terms of intelligence. His kindness and surprising optimism leaps forward like a bunny, nabbing the bird, and delivering a sad piece of poetry that reverberates far and wide beyond the intended. The Ferryman named has so much going on within itself that it’s hard to wrap your head around all that strikes most deeply. In so many little moments, like Tom’s card trick with Caitlin, Oisin’s crumpling of the children’s kite dreams, and the clashing of politics, revolution, desire, and family, it will captivate your soul for the play’s entirety. The Ferryman sails forward, rapidly, quietly, effortlessly, and ever so dramatically, even when the pieces reverberate simply and delicately that in singular form they might first seem unimportant, but mixed together, they become something more astounding and powerful than first imagined. The ending is sublime and startling, grabbing you by the throat and throwing you across the room. It’ll make you light headed and drunk with shock and surprise, but I’d gladly take a third shot of The Ferryman, with or without a splash of water. The flavor is just so damn good, even with the harsh burn when it hits you hard in the back of your throat. So sit back and enjoy the tale told by Far Away and All, you won’t regret a minute spent with the Carneys.
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