In his condition-of-England play, Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth drew in broad strokes: not only does he set the action on St. George’s Day, but he begins with a dreamy, mostly-accurate recitation from the Blake, courtesy of a fifteen-year-old girl, dressed as Phaedra and interrupted after two stanzas. Still, Jerusalem worked, and phenomenally so, because Butterworth largely earned his mythic posturing, finding the kind of balance between national and personal insight as did Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman. The stage itself, populated by a rollocking, Rablesian cast, seemed to pulsate with life. When Rooster Byron (yes, Byron) makes his entrance, he not only dunks his head in a trough but effortlessly gulps down a cocktail of milk, vodka, and raw egg—and we see him crack the egg.
For those who have seen or read Jerusalem, Butterworth’s new play, The Ferryman, should sound somewhat familiar. Taking its title from The Aeneid, The Ferryman is set in Northern Ireland during the harvest festival of 1981, soon after the death of Bobby Sands. When the body of Seamus Carney turns up in a nearby bog, the IRA moves quickly to silence his family—Seamus is one of the “disappeared,” murdered by the Irish Republican Army for opaque reasons. Before the news breaks, his brother, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), receives a visit from a goon (Stuart Graham) looking to buy the family’s silence.
Quinn’s house, like Rooster’s, is a truly spectacular sight, and includes not only a cast of over twenty actors and a baby who can smile on command (Sean Frank Coffey, Cooper Gomes, and Rafael West Vallés) but a live rabbit and goose, too. Seamus’ wife, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), may or may not be a widow and thus lives in a kind of endless semi-mourning, all while nursing a simmering passion for her brother-in-law. Since Caitlin moved in, Quinn’s wife, Mary Carney (Genevieve O’Reilly), has been ill, sort of like a Jamesean heroine, and their children grow into adulthood through the language and violence of civil war. The cast, mesmerizing and mellifluous, are uniformly stellar.
As melodrama, then, The Ferryman is crackerjack theater, riveting for most of its three-hour-plus runtime. But as a reflection on national themes, I’m not quite sure it holds up. Butterworth, inspired by his Northern Irish wife (Donnelly), has relied heavily on tired tropes: there’s binge drinking, brawling, unscrupulous priests, prophetic raconteurs, and banshees, to boot. This sort of excess was fine in Jerusalem but here he is less fluent with the material, and therefore his reach is not matched with same kind of vivid, deeply-felt details. Instead, Butterworth fills in the gaps with something that teeters between archetype and stereotype. It’s fun to watch, all the same.