Review of The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court Theatre: a complex, beautifully textured play
Already booked for a West End transfer to the Gielgud Theatre before it had even opened at the Royal Court, and the fastest-selling show in that theatre's history which sold out its entire run in a single day, The Ferryman has lived up to the faith already invested in it.
Jez Butterworth, whose first play Mojo was also premiered on the Royal Court's main stage in 1996 when he was just 25 and won him an Olivier Award for Best Comedy, seemed to arrive fully-formed as a playwright. But there's a reflective, brooding maturity to his latest play that leaves behind the anarchic spirit that informed Mojo and his biggest previous Royal Court hit Jerusalem to provide a shattering account of an extended Irish family and the terrible legacy of its involvement with the IRA.
This complex, beautifully textured play may feel a bit like the work of another Royal Court regular Martin McDonagh in both accent and attitude (not to mention, too, in an unexpected late burst of violence), but there's also a generosity of spirit and a depth of characterisation that makes every person of its large ensemble come to fully- inhabited life with a sense of intensity but also intimacy.
Unfolding over a single day and night, it is a leisurely, dense drama, played in three acts (with one interval and an extended pause) across over three hours. But though it takes its time, it doesn't feel long; on the contrary, like a good TV boxed set drama, you want to keep watching, as we meet the Carney family in 1981 Armagh preparing for that year's harvest festival. But the past is coming back to haunt them, when the body of patriarch Quinn's missing brother turns up after 10 years. Quinn's reclusive wife has retreated into herself, while the brother's wife Caitlin and her son have moved in with them.
Sam Mendes' alternately boisterous and reflective production is teaming with life (plus a death or two), and has the bonus of a real baby, bunny rabbit and even a live goose. That gives it a stunning sense of verisimilitude; but the cracking dialogue and the richly detailed and finely etched performances of the entire cast, led by film actor Paddy Considine in his confident but unassuming stage debut as Quinn, make you feel like you are living inside the play, not just watching it.
The Ferryman tickets are on sale at the Gielgud Theatre from 20 June.
What the Press Said...
"Paddy Considine stars as a reformed IRA activist in the Jerusalem playwright’s deeply involving and abundant new work."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Jez Butterworth confirms his promise with this unmissable new drama."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"A shattering feast of intricate storytelling."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The piece is not as original as Jerusalem, but it has the feel of unearthed, instant classic."
Paul Taylor for The Independent