Haunted by the past: The Ferryman in New York

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, with (centre) Paddy Considine. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

NEW YORK – It’s a chilly winter’s night in New York (that’s “chilly” not “arctic”). And the mid-town working population — hotel bellpersons to parking valets to ticket takers to Sabrett’s hot dog vendors — seem to be walking ads for Canada, via its most conspicuous export here:  Canada Goose down coats.

Inside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th, a vintage 1927 Broadway house decorated with fanciful “Spanish”-themed murals, a packed house will be breathless (i.e. holding their breath a lot of the time) for more than three fleet hours.

The play is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. And it’s a big, thrilling experience in every way — crowded the way life is, with people and food, memories and stories, politics and poetry. To be in rural Northern Ireland in 1981 is to be in a place where the violent past won’t stay put and the IRA never lets go, even if you’re in a big multi-generational family in the countryside in County Armagh.

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sam Mendes’ production, which began at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2017 and has taken its British cast to New York, is a wild and irresistible swirl of characters — 21 of them, grown-ups and ancients, children of every age from infancy to teenagers, rushing in and out of doors, up and down stairs, dancing, singing, taking a nip of Bushmill’s, telling stories. Ah, and watering grievances with whiskey and opening old wounds.

And that’s not including the animals in the cast, notably a goose and a rabbit. The former is named Peggy (featured in a New York Times article) who really nails her scene with the play’s only Englishman, a gentle, slow-witted character who tucks her under his arm. Apparently, Peggy has been relaxed enough in showbiz to lay an egg offstage. The latter, a dwarf Netherland rabbit, is Pierce, named (according to the same article) because his fur markings resemble early Pierce Brosnan. Two babies play the baby: whichever one isn’t having a crisis gets to be onstage. You feel, in retrospect, that the stage manager should be part of the curtain call.

Justin Edwards with Peggy the goose, in The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Against a backdrop where Bobby Sands et al are on a hunger strike in the Maze, we’re at the Carney farm at harvest time. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine, the charismatic Irish star who’s, amazingly, making his stage debut with The Ferryman), presides over his brood. He’s haunted by the never-explained disappearance years before of his brother Seamus, whom he recruited for the IRA. And he’s troubled by his attraction, a mutual thing, to his sister-in-law (Laura Donnelly), whose widowhood has never been resolved.

His wife has grown ever-more distant; his auntie Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) inhabits an ancient world of Irish fairies and folk legends, returning from time to time to the present to report. Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert) is a storyteller in the grand Irish tradition, rooted in mythology. Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) is a fierce and unremitting republican whose grievances are unshakeably rooted in the ill-fated Easter Uprising of 1916.

And into this haunted environment, shaken by the discovery of a well-preserved body in a bog, an IRA hitman arrives with an ominous warning. 

The past is never buried and gone. Jerusalem, the last Butterworth play I saw in New York, effortlessly lived in the past and the present, too, as it probed the very heart of English-ness and what that means now. At its centre was the antic figure of the anarchist Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, in a mesmerizing performance from the great Mark Rylance a sort of Falstaffian figure-turned-drug dealer in the reduced circumstances of this green and pleasant land in the contemporary world. 

Mendes’ stagecraft — which extends in detail to the smell of burning peat, a cooked goose served up steaming for a harvest dinner, including potatoes roasted for every performance in duck fat — is an extraordinary achievement. His production revels in the way Butterworth’s play ripples with the sense that the past is alive, and still bloody, in Ireland. The ending is shattering. 

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