I begin my week’s worth of reviews with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (you may have seen the playwright’s sensational Jerusalem). Nearing the end of its year-long, prize-winning run, The Ferryman will transfer to Broadway in October: Keep it in mind, since it’s a big (3 hours 15 minutes, with a cast of 29), juicy, riveting epic of a play.
It takes place in 1981 on a farm in Northern Ireland, as the Carney clan prepares for the harvest feast. This feast — a goose makes a brief appearance — stands in sharp contrast to the hunger strike by the political prisoners during the long Troubles as Ireland sought its independence from Britain. Politics are tangled up with love and passion in this drama, whose title refers to the Aeneid’s Charon, the ferryman who conveys souls to the land of the dead.
It begins when a body is found perfectly preserved in the peat bog, which turns out to be not a 2000-year-old archeological treasure but the missing brother of Quinn Carney (Owen McDonnell) and the husband of Caitlin Carney (Rosalie Craig). And so the plot turns on buried passions, ancient history, and the politics of contemporary nationalism and terrorism.
As in the works of many contemporary Irish playwrights (Martin McDonogh, Conor McPherson, Brian Friel), the characters are storytellers, and there is as well much singing and dancing and fighting and drinking, all of which director Sam Mendes makes look entirely natural and spontaneous as he choreographs the comings and goings of this absurdly full house.
Among the many in this engaging cast, the two old aunts seemed to me to own the play and contain its polarities: demented, romantic Aunt Maggie Far Away (Stella McCusker) who begins her story with “The truth is I loved a man who loved another,” and acid-tongued IRA loyalist Aunt Pat (Sian Thomas) who remarks, “You’re about as funny as a feckin’ orphanage on fire.”
The accents are thick and tasty, but this is not a play for the leprechaun lovers; it’s filled with harsh realities and some gorgeous acting.
The Ferryman, at the Gielgud, London until May 19.