Image by Johan Persson
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth – Gielgud Theatre, London
Ten years ago, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was the play of the moment, the break-out new writing everyone had to see. Remarkably, Butterworth has done it again with The Ferryman, winning a fistful of Olivier Awards and breaking Royal Court box office records. Now The Ferryman is installed at the Gielgud Theatre with a new cast, as the beacon of new British writing. This is the play that will define 2010s theatre for the many people who only see straight drama once in a while. The problem is that the play is not nearly as good as everyone would like to believe.
From the very start, the scenario seems very familiar – an multi-generational Irish family drama set in a farm house, mildly disfunctional yet loveable characters, charming dialogue spiced with swearing, and a visitor from outside who will unlock the dark secret that naturally, lurks below the surface. And beyond the apparent safety of the kitchen walls, politics threatens and impossible choices must be made. Irish drama is defined by plays in which family and national politics collide, from Sean O’Casey through Brian Friel to Enda Walsh. It is a rich and characteristic vein of writing, a national theme that matches political disaster with the storytelling that reworks and fuels the myths in a perpetual cycle. The Ferryman is set in 1980s Derry (although there’s a confusing suggestion at one point that the setting is Armagh) during the hunger strikes, but it could be set anywhere in Ireland, at several other points during the 20th century. Butterworth mines the farmhouse kitchen stereotypes for all they are worth and introduces a comically large number of characters, but fails to deliver fresh insight into Ireland or the dilemmas of love and war, or anything beyond the familiar.
Butterworth is happy to play knowing theatrical games, with the central Carney family featuring seven children, a baby who appears on stage, a live goose and number of rabbits. However, this insight does not extend to the wider drama. The cast shows a tendency to burst into spontaneous folk song, to dance and to recite poetry. Some characters provide folksy, patronising Irish scenery, such as Uncle Patrick with his tendency to read Virgil out loud over a nip of Bushmills, and Aunt Maggie Far Away who sits in a wheelchair, capable of occasional lucidity which she fills with picturesque tale-telling. Aunt Patricia is another, equally familiar type, a ferociously unpleasant old lady who has never recovered from the Easter 1916 Rising. But the least excusable character is surely Tom Kettle, a stray Englishman who is ‘soft in the head’ and, naturally, does not know the strength of his own hands. You can almost hear an angry John Steinbeck yelling, ‘Hey! Waidagoddamminute!’
This complete lack of realism is the setting for a story examining recent, grim history: the terrible burden carried by the relatives of the disappeared, those executed as informers by the IRA, which would then engineer false sightings for years afterwards to conceal the crime. The plot is intertwined with a further theme about conflicted love, Quinn Carney in love with his sister-in-law while his wife languishes upstairs, feigning illness to escape the grim reality (and having several babies).
The country dancing, literature-loving, dram-sinking extended family has to confront both internal and external troubles, but although the drama plays out by the end of the play nothing unexpected has happened whatsoever. The uncomfortable Irish stereotypes are never questioned or deconstructed, and the characters behind the dark family dynamics have plenty to say but remain opaque. There are many people in this play – and the cast is excellent – but, for all its fuss the play has very little to say. It neither challenges our assumptions nor adds to our understanding. Butterworth has written a highly conventional drama, certainly compared to the current, experimental work of contemporary Enda Walsh, which does not press the audience beyond their comfort zone, and even features a song or two. It also confirms their assumptions about Ireland and Irishness in a way that can at very best be described as patronising. That may be why The Ferryman has proved so popular, but it feels like a play from a different time rather anything to do with the future of British, or Irish, theatre.