“The years roll by and nothing changes”
I always find it fascinating to watch how the critical community deals with a play that becomes a big success. The overnight rush to acclaim genius, the enthusiasm with which some greet it, the scepticism that that inspires in others followed by the relief that comes when someone publishes a well-reasoned critique that allows them to say ‘well it isn’t that good, see’. All the while, the show is doing great business with a general public who are just excited to see a hot new play.
Which is all a long-winded introduction to me getting to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman for a second time. I enjoyed the play, immensely so in places, when I first saw it in its initial run but it was a four star show for me rather than the full five – here’s my review from the Royal Court. And in its grander new home at the Gielgud, I have to say I pretty much felt the same way. It is a play that wields extraordinary power but it also one which struggles a tad with subtlety.
At its best, The Ferryman is a fierce examination of how inescapable a legacy of violence can be. Set in the long-reaching shadow of the Troubles but equally applicable to anywhere there’s long-running conflict – Israel and Palestine to the Robinsons and the Ramseys – Butterworth tackles the way deep-seated hatred infiltrates generation after generation, making it nigh-on impossible for people to escape the tangled web that comes from personal history being so intertwined with the political.
But because it takes place in Northern Ireland, Butterworth and director Sam Mendes can’t help but overplay some of the local elements, to the point of cultural stereotyping. The incorporation of Irish myth and modes of storytelling, and how they interplay with the stark reality of political injustice, is a key factor here. They should serve as a constant reminder that we’re far from the world of documentary reality here, but the production does find itself treading a fine line on occasion.
Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly deliver two scorching performances at the heart of the family at the centre of the action here, Dearbhla Molloy and Bríd Brennan remain sensational as two contrasting examples of the older generation, and an inordinately talented cast of youngsters fill the stage superbly. Whether you give it five stars or two, find it too Oirish or not enough, there’s no denying The Ferryman is a must-see piece of theatre that is perfect for chewing over in the pub two nights later over several pints of Guinness (or any other beer of any nationality…?)