The Ferryman: A Modern-Day Classic

Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine

Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine

The Ferryman is set in rural County Armagh in Northern Ireland in late August 1981. It’s time for the harvest and a celebration, time for a festive family dinner punctuated with music and dancing. But before that happens, there is a prologue that takes place on a bleak street in Derry: Father Horrigan (Gerard Horan), a priest who knows the Carney family well, is called to a meeting with the sinister Mr Muldoon (Stuart Graham) who informs him that the body of Seamus Carney, who disappeared on New Year’s Day 1972, at the age of twenty, has been found in a peat bog in County Louth, shot in the back of the head as retribution for his defection from the IRA. The priest is instructed to take the message to the dead man’s family along with a warning—they are not to blame or bad mouth the IRA.

What’s the background?

This is a time of the ongoing ‘Troubles’ between the English and the Irish, a time when hunger strikes were taking place in the Maze Prison, the strikers demanding to be recognized as political prisoners, not as terrorists. A number of them will starve to death, while trying to force the hand of the British government. The Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, holds fast: A crime is a crime. For those unfamiliar with ‘the Troubles,’ there’s a timeline by Peter Taylor included at the end of this post that’s highly instructive.

Who’s Who in The Cast?

What follows next is a three-hour and fifteen-minute feast peopled by 31 characters, not counting a good-as-gold real-life 9-month-old baby, a fattened goose and a cuddly rabbit. The head of this family, the master of the house, is Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), who like his brother, Seamus, had links to the IRA but broke with them to devote himself to maintaining his farm and looking after an ailing wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and his six children.

Paddy Considine and Genevieve O’Reilly

Paddy Considine and Genevieve O’Reilly

Also living under the same roof are Seamus’s widow, Caitlin Carney (Laura Donnelly) and her troubled son Oisin Carney (Rob Malone); Quinn’s Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert), Aunt Pat ((Dearbhla Molloy) and Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan). If Aunt Pat is a staunch Irish Republican resentful of the killing of her own brother years ago, Aunt Maggie, fitfully dozing in her wheelchair, comes alive to regale the children with frightening tales of the old days—of fairy warriors and banshees, those female spirits in Irish legends whose wailing warns of an impending death in a house. Don’t discount the warning!

And don’t discount your confusion as the play opens with Quinn dancing wildly in the middle of the night in the kitchen with a woman we assume is his wife, but who turns out to be his sister-in-law played by Laura Donnelly who won an Olivier Award in 2017 for her performance in the original London production.

In the first act, the playwright, Jez Butterworth, introduces us to a wide array of chatty characters, a number of whom have Irish brogues that I was hard-pressed to understand. (As were the attendees seated to my left and right.) Then again, I’m someone who watches English and Scottish films with subtitles. Fortunately, hard to understand is not the case with the principals, who are magnificent. As is the highly-charged second act laced with dazzling twists and turns. Not to be missed.

And what’s the meaning of the title? Uncle Pat is reading Virgil’s The Aeneid, and it’s the ferryman who takes you across the river Styx to the underworld.

The Cast of the Ferrymen Credit: Johan Persson

The Cast of the Ferrymen Credit: Johan Persson

This sprawling brawling tale incorporates love and hatred, life and death, comedy and tragedy, and violence and kindness. The plot is gripping, the cast universally excellent, and the atavistic fears and hatreds on display are sure to send a chill up your spine. Don’t take my word for it!

what do the critics say?

“It takes your breath away!” —Ben Brantley, New York Times

“You feel like you’re watching human destiny play out before your eyes.’ —Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“The best play of the century.”—Stephen Suskin, New York Stage Review.

“This explosive, exhilarating drama is what a theater lover lives for.” —Peter Marks, The Washington Post.

“The must-see drama of the year.” —Adam Feldman, TimeOut

Coming to New York? Don’t delay in getting tickets. That’s all from your trusty correspondent for this week. If you’re saying to yourself ‘Wait a second, it’s not French!’ in a sense, you’re right. Then, again, it is universal. And I didn’t want you to miss out on this universal treat.

Hope to see you back next week when I’ll have the coffee ready. Until then mes amis, may life be good to you. And remember: Sharing is Caring! Merci beaucoup.