Like one of those Celtic knots, Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, a story about a family in Northern Ireland set in 1981 amid the heyday of IRA menace, wills and weaves itself into focus right in front of you. But the thing about a knot is that you’ve got to be careful not to leave loose ends to tug at, lest the whole thing unravel.
Presented in three hour-long scenes (plus a prologue at the top of show), Butterworth opens with a rather murky first act, made up of intentionally disparate narrative strands of something yet to come together. As technique, this falls on the withholding side (along with other dramatic devices deployed throughout that I would describe as effective yet agitating – they work, but are still rather uncomfortable hooks to swallow). At the first intermission, a woman behind me asked “Did you understand anything that just happened?”
A dead man is discovered in a bog with a bullet through his head – the body had been there ten years, and is identified as the younger brother of one Quinn Carney (a confident and appealing Paddy Considine), who is now a farmer in Northern Ireland. In the prologue, there’s an early encounter between the IRA boss, named Muldoon (played with resonant and melodious base notes by Stuart Graham), and Quinn’s priest. Muldoon ends the scene by growling, “Why don’t you tell me everything you know about Quinn Carney?” Then the wall rises up and the remainder of the play takes place on Quinn’s farm, although it might have been nice to stay in the previous scene a bit longer to hear some of what the priest had to say, because it takes considerable time to piece it all together.
The essential threads are: Caitlin (a fully-committed Laura Donnelly), wife of dead man in bog, has been staying under Quinn’s roof these past ten years. It’s unclear for some time what exactly Caitlin and Quinn’s relationship is (again, with intention by the playwright – Butterworth provides scarce detail on this until suddenly revealing Quinn’s wife midway through the act, who has been upstairs bedridden with a “virus”). Caitlin also has a skulking fourteen-year-old son, who will, throughout the play, overhear things through curtains and doorways when he’s not intended to, including – when the reluctant priest comes calling on behalf of Muldoon – that his father is dead.
This revelation sets a series of trajectories into motion: The IRA must contain the Carney family and buy its assurances that it will not implicate the IRA in any way regarding the death, as – also important to note – it would appear that the brother was an informer and was probably killed by his own organization. Caitlin is suddenly free to pursue her own life, but as we begin to learn, the life she wants is with Quinn – a detail Quinn’s own wife hasn’t failed to pick up on. Surrounding all this is a whirling cacophony of stage action (the director is Sam Mendes), much of it delightful and rich in detail, but not necessarily dramatically propellant.
There’s a real live baby that makes multiple appearances on stage, along with two rabbits (although it might have been the same rabbit, revealed twice) and a live goose. A lamp starts on fire! There’s a multitude of child actors, led by an effervescent young performer named Matilda Lawler, who plays the youngest Carney girl and has all the best lines, which she nails with obvious relish. There is a lot to look at and take in, so much so that it becomes unnecessary to fully heed the drama underlying the action. It’s flourishing big budget naturalism from wall-to-wall, and one can easily choose to get lost in it and go with the flow – just ride the ride.
But some of us can’t help but pull on the threads less securely tied, and when you’ve got twenty-one characters with speaking roles, one can pick and choose which loose end to pursue. The one I struggled most with was the inclusion of a semi-comatose aunt, who makes her appearance in a wheelchair, staring blankly at the proceedings, seemingly lost to the world, until – at the most convenient of times for the narrative’s purpose, she springs to life, like one of those mall-kiosk video game fortune tellers, sings a song, and delivers some key plot points before falling back into her oblivion. This happens… several times. There’s nothing wrong with dramatic devices of convenience, per say, but there’s a definite line between that which is merely convenient (unseen son overhears about father’s death, for example) and that which is blatantly contrived.
The fortune-telling (and practically coin-operated) aunt appears to be placed in this world in order to act as a sort of seer, a link to the mystical past, as she has multiple scenes wandering fearful through the empty house and calling out that she hears the shrieking of a field full of banshees. For me, she felt like an outlier, intended to elevate the proceedings into a sort of symbolic, half-magic world, but instead dragging it into more of a melodrama, the only form in which I could accept her intrusions.
Unfortunately though, the rest of the play doesn’t function terribly well as melodrama. The bits do not add up—leaving us to tug at the aunt thread which leads to pulling on the angry son yarn (wait, why does he keep overhearing things at just the right time? Why is he so angry towards his mother, other than because she’s withholding information from him? Should we be also angry at the playwright for doing the same to us?) One wobbly idea leads to another – what about the gentle British giant character who feels like he wandered in from some nearby production of Of Mice and Men?
How does one resolve the intellectual vacancies that inhabit what should be the play’s most emotional dramatic moments, when instead of finding words for his characters, Butterworth (twice) resorts to having his characters quote other literature at these key junctures? And so forth. Pull too hard, and you’ll find yourself left with two or three really strong dramatic sequences to hang your hat on, but not much else of substance. Which is also to say, a play shouldn’t unravel so easily. In the coming age of less predictable theater, perhaps these types of plays will come to resemble more untidy tangle and less mechanical knot.