Unless you've done your homework or some pre-show research, it's not until the third act of this gripping drama that it is explained who The Ferryman in Jez Butterworth's play title links back to. It is of course the mythical Cheron, who ferried souls across the River Styx - except the souls of those who had lied to innocents and those whose bones remain unburied.
But no matter, because there is a whole host of 'stuff' going on - including a live goose, a couple of live rabbits and swearing, glug-swigging children as well as gripping plot lines woven into a historical context with the IRA hunger strikes, Margaret Thatcher's reign as British prime minister and a missing body becoming a political pawn merely by the silence around its recent discovery - to keep you occupied. And it's important to note that this 'stuff' makes for a long performance - 180+ minutes to be precise - but that didn't deter me, nor the thousands who are queuing up to see this masterful follow up to ‘Jerusalem’; because between Butterworth and director Sam Mendes, the content is both interesting and awe-inspiring to watch.
The play, which is superbly directed by Mendes, is set in an Armagh farmhouse in 1981, where the extended Carney family lives and through which various family members come and go like a busy bus stop. And in this respect, Mendes is as much choreographer as director. Characters are quickly established though, despite the sheer numbers (the play features a cast of 21) and one gets a true sense of how a large family operated in the much more austere early 1980s. Had I not grown up in the 1980s in a bustling family home with seven children and almost 40 cousins on my maternal side alone, I might not have believed the comings and goings as possible, but this side of the story rang very true for me. There was a lot of traffic in our living room at times too, although not as much whiskey. I think that part has been exaggerated to fit with a ‘fightin’ Irish’ stereotype a little.
Family patriarch, Quinn Carney (superbly played by Paddy Considine, who makes his stage debut in The Ferryman) has long since denounced violence with the IRA in favour of life as a farmer with his wife and eight children. From the time his brother Seamus went missing 10 years previously, his sister-in-law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) and her son have lived as an integral part of the household.
The (very cleverly written) dialogue is powerful and poignant and touches upon emotional personal relationships, love and loss and well as pride, identity and nationalism. The overriding theme though, is that of ambiguous loss. When a family or a community experiences an ambiguous loss, i.e. the loss of a loved one whose physical body is missing, those left behind often create their own meanings and endings to the mysterious stories of disappearance. And as we humans are individual, our story endings (and therefore our expectations and how we manage them) in those kinds of situations are also different and, at times, conflicting. It’s no surprise then, that this situation can create conflict and confusion in families, and we see this pan out as the play develops. It was interesting to see how, as well as the physical ambiguous loss surrounding the ‘Disappeared’ Seamus Carney, we also see the psychological ambiguous loss of Aunt Maggie Far Away (played brilliantly by Brid Brennan) whose dementia (if that’s what it is) leads her to tell her own roguish versions of her childhood loves, and memories and thoughts as a seer are shared in a magical, fairytale and humane way. The kids who play the family’s children are fantastic supporting actors to her in a couple of scenes as this happens.
Aunt Maggie is wonderfully juxtaposed with militant Aunt Pat, who is a hardened Republican and IRA supporter. And I couldn’t help but feel endeared to Mary Carney, although Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin is the most favourable and formidable character - her tenacity and strength, as well as good values in the face of a suppressed love developed over a decade for her host Quinn Carney.
Mendes and Butterworth have worked together before on the scripts for Skyfall and Spectre, the director's two Bond films, but this is their first theatrical collaboration and one which will not disappoint, despite its 3 hour duration. This rich, political and personal production kept me hooked and absorbed in every single scene.