**Warning: a couple of minor spoilers below**
Lovers of Butterworth’s hit play Jerusalem will not be disappointed by his most recent West End success, The Ferryman. With about as much profanity and all of the mastery we have come to expect, Butterworth delights his audience with over three hours (and trust me, it does not drag) of unparalleled storytelling. We are introduced to the Carneys: a fractured family damaged by the political instability in Northern Ireland. Set in the family home during harvest time, the dichotomy between their public and private worlds starts to collapse as ghosts of the past return to remind them of their Troubles.
As with many gripping plays, there is a complex love triangle at the heart of The Ferryman. After the disappearance of her husband ten years prior to the start of the play, Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) and her son Oisin (Rob Malone) are taken in by her brother in law Quinn (Paddy Considine) and his frail wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly). Confined to her bed for most of the play, Mary’s role in the play borders on the inconsequential. It is the relationship between Caitlin and Quinn which demands our attention. As the play opens on the family home, Caitlin and Quinn are found sitting around the family table by candlelight, playing a game of Connect 4. Blind folding each other in a challenge to see who can win without sight they then dance together like teenagers in the opening throes of love. We are tricked into believing we are watching husband and wife. Only when Quinn removes his blindfold and silently watches Caitlin dancing freely, arms in the air, do we get our first sense of the longing he is unable to act upon. Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) voices this for us when the three women cluster around this same table and she insensitively remarks how Caitlin is mistook for Quinn’s wife at a local party, making her “mouth water just to recall it”. The silence on stage is palpable as the audience squirms with the scene’s dramatic irony.
The hubbub of family life is captured brilliantly by the seemingly never ending stream of children who fly into view from all parts of the stage. From baby to teen, and everything in between, the audience has quite a job remembering their Michael (Fra Fee) from their JJ (Niall Wright), their Honor (Sophia Ally) from their Mercy (Meibh Campbell). This is not to diminish the great talent of these young actors, however. When little Honor comes running on stage with her arts and crafts crown, demanding she be addressed as Cleopatra and spouting a shocking tale involving her brother’s exposed bum crack, we are utterly captivated. Every curse word the girls utter in their broad Irish accent, as they enjoy half a thimble of Irish whiskey, only serves to further endear them to their audience. Taking a look at their elders immediately shows us where they have picked up such bad habits. Alcoholic Uncle Pat (Des MacNeill), partial to one too many snifters, and his cantankerous sister Aunt Pat, are a fabulous duo, their endless slanging match indicating a stifling, shared history.
Butterworth is a master of introducing classical, literary and modern references in his works. From sources as disparate as William Blake and Girls Aloud in Jerusalem, he introduces similar mixing in The Ferryman. Most striking is in the play’s title, which references Virgil’s The Aeneid and thus captures the sense of loss, ambiguity and restlessness which defines this play. Also of interest is Butterworth’s characterisation of Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson). Plodding onto the stage dressed in a dirty overcoat and sporting a wiry, unkempt beard, he is a character whom we can only half laugh at. He kindly interacts with the children, producing not one, not two, but several apples from his deep coat pockets, finally presenting a live rabbit as a last gift (and as we learn, quite a regular one). He has a gentle way about him, reciting poetry in a strangely lucid, inspired moment and producing a bouquet of roses when he attempts to secure Caitlin’s hand. He is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Lenny in more ways than one. From his connection to the play’s rabbits and his giant, gentle demeanour to his role in an accidental murder during the play’s tragic denouement, he follows a very similar character arc. Even Muldoon (Stuart Graham), IRA leader and bearer of bad news, could be seen as a forbidding Inspector Goole figure, darkening the doorway of the Carney family home.
Perhaps a little overdone is the final scene, which sees several characters lying dead in a typical Shakespearean tragic finish. What saves it, is the careful use of lighting to remind us of the play’s eerie title. Old Aunt Maggie Faraway (Bríd Brennan) slowly stumbles to the window, which casts a pale blue light over the depressing scene. Her voice quakes as she cries out that the banshees are coming, those lying dead on stage waiting to join the restless souls.