OLIVIA WARD JACKSON reviews The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre.

Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
['The Tollund Man' by Seamus Heaney]

It may seem strange to begin a review of Jez Butterworth’s soulful play, The Ferryman, with Seamus Heaney’s intimate description of the preservation of a human corpse in an Irish bog. In fact, The Ferryman itself begins in this way, and the essence of Heaney’s poetry underlies the whole story. The Tollund Man is submerged in a bog; a liminal space, between life and death, between body and spirit. Similarly, Butterworth presents Northern Ireland as a place suspended between peace and war, between old and new, from which it cannot escape due to the incubation of an intense sense of injustice over generations.

The play is set in Northern Ireland during the year 1981. Its menacing opening scene depicts IRA chief Mr. Muldoon flanked by two hitmen, informing Father Horrigan that the missing husband of one of his parishioners, Caitlin Carney, has been found dead in a bog. Mr. Muldoon compares the fate of Seamus Carney to that of Heaney’s Tollund Man, establishing clear intertextual links. The discovery disrupts the careful equilibrium of the Carney family. It both throws light onto the murky political past of Caitlin’s brother-in-law, Quinn Carney, as well as forcing into question the relationship between Caitlin and Quinn, in whose house she has been living for ten years as a possible widow.

Photo courtesy of Johan Persson.

The brilliance of this production lies in its multiplicity, and the way in which it manages to bridge the gap between the political and familial spheres. The Irish conflict looms like a dark cloud over the loving Carney household as they prepare for their annual harvest feast. The chaotic family win our hearts with their humour, drinking and the outrageous language of their seven young children. Yet, the jollity of the festive preparations is undermined by the deaths of Irish Republican hunger strikers imprisoned in Northern Ireland. Such a tragi-comic atmosphere is best symbolised by the (living!) harvest goose. A joke investigation into the whereabouts of the escaped goose loses its light-heartedness with the silent appearance of Tom Kettle, an English handyman, who leaves the dead bird dangling by a window like a bloody crucifix.

The conflicting attitudes towards the Troubles within the Carney family are beautifully portrayed. The Carneys range from Aunt Maggie Far Away, who sits dreaming and singing in the corner of the stage, to the adorable newborn Carney baby. Such diversity of age and experience allows for a wide variety of conflicting perspectives on the situation in Ireland. Yet, what is so powerful about The Ferryman is its ability to evoke sympathy from the audience for every family member, regardless of their personal political loyalties. This is achieved through Butterworth’s deeply humanising explanations of the painful pasts and upbringings of different Carney family members.

Photo courtesy of Johan Persson.
Photo courtesy of Johan Persson.

A heart-wrenching example of this technique is in act three, when Aunt Pat goes to shake the hand of Mr. Muldoon; the very man who commissioned the murder of Seamus Carney and whom is despised by Quinn and Caitlin. To an ignorant audience such a move would appear cruel and unforgivable. Yet an audience that has heard Pat relate her experience at the Easter Rebellion understands the significance of her handshake. A further illustration of this is when an exchange of witty banter between the Carney boys and their cousins from the city, escalates into a passionate argument over the future of Ireland and the steps each boy should be taking to ensure it. The boys’ perspectives on the ‘greater good’ of the IRA differ along with their upbringings, but it soon becomes clear that they are all unsure where to channel their anger and blind hope. The group of cousins find it impossible to envision a peaceful future for Ireland and the scene ends with an atmosphere of desperate confusion. 

During one particularly sinister moment in The Ferryman Uncle Pat reads aloud an extract of his dearly beloved Aeneid, an epic that Heaney translated. He speaks of the river Styx, which divides the world of the living from that of the dead, and the ferryman who carries souls across it. Uncle Pat focuses on the fates of Virgil’s unburied bodies, likening them to Seamus Carney. The unburied are doomed to wander the shore for one hundred years, unable to cross the river, whilst their relatives are denied the right to mourn, as is Caitlin Carney. Such epic imagery illustrates the tragic nature of the Carneys’ situation. The play’s title encapsulates this tragedy, and evokes a Heaney-like image of political purgatory. This lingering image embodies Butterworth’s dramatic depiction of Northern Ireland as existing in a vicious cycle of violence and injustice, with no clear path to peace.

Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman is running until 19th May 2018. Find tickets and more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Johan Persson.