Monday 8 May 2017

The Ferryman at the Royal Court, or, There Is No Escape

The fundamental mood of this gripping piece of theatre is established in the first scene as a fearful Catholic priest, Father Horrigan (a fine, understated piece of work by Gerard Horan) is threatened by representatives of the IRA. Lighter, indeed often very funny, moments follow over the following three hours but that threat never goes away. My gaze periodically drifted to the door at the back, expecting doom to enter through it and, in due time, inescapably, it comes.

Jez Butterworth's new play at the Royal Court is, as should already be clear, a tale of a Northern Ireland imprisoned in a cycle of hate, violence, revenge. Butterworth explores this through an extended Irish Catholic farming family. To begin with, we may deceive ourselves that this family is managing to stand aside from the events of 1981 – alluded to, at first subtly, via Thatcher's voice on a radio. Slowly, inexorably, they are ensnared, one by one. Trapped in my seat, I kept wanting them to choose some other path but this is a play that offers essentially no redemption or escape for any of them. Among a plethora of striking scenes in that process, I would mention Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) boasting about his recent IRA activities and, slowly, fatally, corrupting others, and the poisonous rage Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy) has built on one event decades before.

But one of the great strengths of this piece is it is not all on one note. There's a heart breakingly touching proposal of marriage, an old woman (Brid Brennan) in a fog of dementia who nevertheless sees more clearly than just about everybody else and can do nothing to prevent the tragedies, and some marvellous interweaving of the words of others – Raleigh and Virgil most strikingly. This is a magnificent piece of ensemble writing which manages to give everyone in this large company effective life.

Butterworth's world is brought superbly to life through designer Rob Howell's marvellous evocation of a rural farmhouse, with spot on lighting from Peter Mumford, through which Sam Mendes, seemingly effortlessly, moves his cast. The music, most notably in the form of Brid Brennan's haunted renditions of traditional songs persistently tugs at the heart.

Every member of the cast contributes. Among them (in addition to those already mentioned) John Hodgkinson's mentally troubled Tom Kettle (inexplicably a source of comedy to some in the audience) I found especially moved me. Des McAleer's Virgil reading, storytelling Uncle Pat who reveals behind it as the story goes on the capacity for piercing rejoinder and deep tenderness. Paddy Considine's Quin and Laura Donnelly's Caitlin who give the appearance for much of the drama of maintaining control before the final breakdown; Stuart Graham's quiet, vengeful, terrifying Muldoon.

My only slight niggle concerns the very end when having kept so much unspoken, the violence in the wings – a plethora of actions, some violent, and frank speaking spills out. One piece of violence seemed to me excessive, but perhaps because it's effected by one of the characters I most cared for and leaves their fate unhopeful. The whole sequence didn't quite have enough space for exploration and absorption. But this may be the point. It's generally my personal preference to have some room for hope in a drama. By the end here there is little. Sadly, in the trapped, vicious cycle that Butterworth is depicting this is I fear a fair take.

This tense, harrowing, outstandingly performed work is a must see. In particular, it is worth trying for returns while it is still in the intimate space of the Royal Court. Otherwise, this is not to be missed in the West End. It also left a final disturbing thought in my mind. With the recent years of peace it would be nice to think that the cycle depicted here is now broken. But Brexit endangers some of the structures upon which that peace has been built, to the apparent indifference and/or obliviousness of many British voters and the government. This play is a timely reminder of a terrible past which we forget at our peril, but it is perhaps also a subtle warning for the future.

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