Royal Court’s The Ferryman: Feminism, Irishness and Nostalgia.

Rosalie Craig, Owen-McDonnell. The current cast of The Ferryman. Photo by Johan Persson.

Royal Court’s The Ferryman – Feminism, Irishness and Nostalgia.

by Gus Subero for #frontmezzjunkiesUK

It’s hard not to feel that Jez Butterworth’s new play becomes more poignant by the day, as British history seems to repeat itself and we continue to approach what seems to be a tumultuous Brexit for Northern Ireland. The Ferryman feels at times premonitory and others revisionist but, regardless of where we stand while watching this play, the feeling of imminent doom is unequivocally present.

The play is set in 1981 in rural Derry in the farmhouse of the Carney family. As the larger than life family prepares for the annual harvest celebration – in which their hard work on the land is finally rewarded with a night of feasting and celebration- the arrival of an undesired visitor will unravel a web of lies, intrigue and deceit. Director Sam Mendes (Braodway’s The Vertical Hour, Royal National’s King Lear) provides the perfect timing for a play that has many narrative layers and that seems to deal with a number of plot lines in a rather short time (despite the nearly three hours of running time). For instance, the beginning of act two provides an air of familiarity and comradery rarely experienced in theatre, at least for those who share a background where large families are the norm and where the possibility of fraught relations is constant when so many people’s feelings are at stake.

Owen-McDonnell, Rosalie Craig (center), and the current cast of The Ferryman. Photo by Johan Persson.

The intertwining of the political and the personal are poignantly explored in the relationship between Caitlin Carney (Rosalie Craig) and her brother-in-law Quinn Carney (Owen McDonnell) (although the production attended by this writer was performed by his understudy Dean Ashton). As the couple fight to come to terms with the impossibility of fully realising their relationship, as Caitlin and her son have been taken in by her brother-in-law’s family, it is clear that the Carney family continues to be affected by the disappearance of Caitlin’s husband. It is impossible to deny the chemistry between the Craig and Ashton characters from the very beginning of the play, in much the same way as we witness the disdain and jealousy that Mary Carney (Catherine McCormack) awakens in both her husband and sister-in-law.

Stella McCusker (left) and the current cast of The Ferryman. Photo by Johan Persson.

Yet, the play is a great exploration of female relationships and the power wielded by women even when they seem to be positioned within the domestic sphere. Particularly interesting and beautifully executed are the performances by both Sian Thomas, as Aunt Patricia Carney, and Stella McCusker, as Aunt Maggie Far Away. While the former’s political convictions are at the forefront of her narrative arc (her obsession with the news and clear hatred for the British Prime Minister), the latter operates symbolically at the interstice of patriarchal sexism (she loses the ownership of her desires due to a system that obliges women to follow a very specific path in life). However, unlike Caitlin and Mary, these women are not controlled by the actions and choices made by the men in their lives.

The current cast of The Ferryman. Photo by Johan Persson.

However, the play relies too heavily on a number of stereotypes to sell the notion of Irishness to its audience. For instance, the Carney family seems excessively large with seven kids (roles that seems unnecessary as the narrative arc of most of the girls could have been compressed into fewer characters), yet this could also be considered a criticism of the abortion laws in Ireland that continue to the present day. There is also the excessive underage drinking to, once again, continue to link Irish identity with drunkenness, while the character of Lawrence Malone (Glenn Speers) seems more caricature than homage to Sinn Feins’ actual leader Gerry Adams. Despite its slight shortfalls, it’s easy to see why this play has been acclaimed by critics and the public alike. The Ferryman is a poignant political drama that will keep you on the edge of your sit and stay with you for time to come.

The current cast of THE FERRYMAN by Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes. Geilgud Theatre. Photo credit : Johan Persson.

The Ferryman is currently booking at the Gielgud Theatre until 19 May 2018.


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