james debate
james debate

Thursday 6 July 2017

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Jez Butterworth
Starring Paddy Considine, Laura Donnelly, Stuart Graham, Fra Fee
Theatre Royal Court/Gielgud Theatre

ferryman royal court theatre gielgud butterworth sam mendes

It's by far the hottest ticket of the year so far. The Ferryman sold out instantly when it began its original run at the Royal Court Theatre. Now thanks to a mix of glowing reviews and the desire to thoroughly milk a cash-cow, Ferryman is transferring to the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury, meaning those of us not fortunate enough to catch the fever first time around have a second chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason tickets sold out so quickly (and presumably one of the reasons they are so keen to recoup their expenses) is that Ferryman marks the much vaunted return to theatre of director Sam Mendes, former artistic director of the Donmar, more recently the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty and, of course, the recent James Bond movies. But for those of us who really love our theatre, Ferryman is at least as exciting for having been written by Jez Butterworth, last seen at the Royal Court with his excellent 2008 production Jerusalem. Does this ultimately justify being the fastest selling play in Royal Court history? Not necessarily, but hype aside Ferryman proves itself to be well worth the price of admission.

Set in 1980s Ireland against the backdrop of hunger strikes and IRA violence. The focus is on Considine's Quinn Carney, an ex IRA man now retired to life on his farm, surrounded by extended family and a bevy of foul-mouthed kids taking whisky with their breakfast. The core of the tension surrounds his relationship with Laura Donnelly's Caitlin, married to Carney's brother who has been missing for a decade, presumed killed by the IRA.

The quality of production is outstanding right from the start. The elaborate set design feels lived in and familiar. The lighting is ingeniously choreographed to unobtrusively create atmosphere, casting dancing shadows around the stage at key moments. The most striking example comes during an early moment of tenderness between the two lead characters, sharing a blindfolded slow dance by the light of the early morning. The heavily detailed set remains constant over the course of the evening, and yet the production team manage to introduce a remarkable level of flexibility, shifting mood and changing scenes between night and day, different furniture configurations and entrances, all in a seamless dream-like fashion. Sam Mendes shows here that he is still imposingly confident on a theatre stage, a man who knows exactly what he wants the audience to see and experience down to the smallest detail.

The cast is impressive, both in size and quality. A lovable noise of Irish characters, dancing, singing and sharing in bucolic family moments. It could easily have come off as a lazy parade of stereotypes, but it all gives way to a script far more deft and ambitious in scope than another writer might have delivered. Everything is presented in a larger context of history, tradition, familial tragedies, ancient feuds. At times it feels like there's so much baggage weighing these people down, that no wonder there are so many of them on stage, they simply can't leave.

Through the various weaving narratives and character arcs, a sense of profound loss unites their stories. The missing husband and brother, the doddering firebrand Republican who never stopped idealising a missing brother from childhood, the sleepy great aunt who intermittently emerges from senility to reminisce of lost romances, and lost history. By the end of the evening it will be clear why the name Ferryman has been chosen; an entire cast of characters appearing stagnant in a state of emotional limbo, waiting for something to snap so that they can finally move on.

As with Butterworth's other plays, this exceeds the sum of its narrative parts. More than just the family drama or period piece politics, this is a story that plays with your sense of nostalgia, evokes an all too relatable sense of hopeless longing, and builds a relentless intensity right until its denouement.

A play like this runs every risk of being dismissed as just another hype production, a fad of the moment, but that would do a disservice to what is ultimately another very fine addition to Butterworth's body of work. There is brilliance here, an excellent piece of theatre that I can wholly recommend anyone to take the time to enjoy. It's run at the Gielgud has just been extended, and if the tickets keep flying out the doors there's every reason to believe it will extend yet again. Make sure you catch it before it ends.

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