North dominating more than political stage in London

‘The Ferryman’, a play set in Armagh during the hunger strikes, is going down well

Jez Butterworth, Laura Donnelly and Sam Mendes at the press night after-party for ‘The Ferryman’ in London. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Jez Butterworth, Laura Donnelly and Sam Mendes at the press night after-party for ‘The Ferryman’ in London. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

 

Northern Ireland, usually so remote on the periphery of English consciousness, is everywhere in London these days. The DUP’s 10 MPs at Westminster, freshly embittered from their triumph in winning £1 billion from Theresa May, seethe on the green benches with a new, watchful swagger.

The rest of the house is watching them more closely, too, not only because the DUP is propping up the government but because MPs from other parties have discovered their greatest hits for the first time. These include saving Ulster from sodomy (not entirely successfully), palling around with loyalist terrorists, denying climate change and preventing Northern Ireland’s women from having abortions.

To be fair, most of Northern Ireland’s parties have been happy for women to have to go to Britain and pay up to £900 for an abortion rather than make it available at home. Following a Conservative rebellion last week, the British government has agreed to pay the cost of the termination for women from Northern Ireland, but they’ll still have to make their own way over there.

It’s not just at Westminster that Northern Ireland is the talk of the town, because the most scorching hot theatre ticket in London right now is for The Ferryman, a new play by Jez Butterworth set in Co Armagh during the hunger strikes in 1981. The play’s entire run at the Royal Court was sold out in a single day, and it has just moved to the West End for a run at the Gielgud Theatre until next January.

Happy box office

The combination of Butterworth, whose 2009 play, Jerusalem, established him as one of the great playwrights of his generation, and director Sam Mendes was always going to cheer up the box office. But the show itself, with a cast of 23, as well as a live goose, a rabbit and a baby, has surpassed its pre-production hype. At the centre of The Ferryman is Quinn Carney (played by Paddy Considine), a former IRA fighter who now runs a farm and heads a large, disorderly household. Quinn’s brother Seamus, who was also in the IRA, disappeared 10 years ago and his wife, Caitlín (Laura Donnelly), and her son Oisín have lived with her brother-in-law since then. Within minutes, the audience can see that Quinn and Caitlín yearn for one another while Quinn’s wife, Mary, has withdrawn to her room, away from the family they created.

Now, with the hunger strikes at their zenith and the IRA seizing the political opportunity, Seamus’s body has been found in a bog across the border in Co Louth. Muldoon, an IRA commander played by Stuart Graham, wants to ensure that questions about how Seamus was killed should not undermine the new political strategy.

Disappeared uncle

The play was partly inspired by the story of Donnelly’s uncle Eugene Simons, who was disappeared by the IRA in 1981, when he was 26. As Muldoon, Graham captures perfectly the thuggish arrogance of the Provo “made man” in the 1980s, and Butterworth has a keen ear for the weasel argot that allowed such men to move easily from killing into parliamentary politics.

The action unfolds in three acts over 24 hours in Quinn’s kitchen as the Carneys bring in the harvest. Innumerable children sip whiskey, swear and keep up a stringent critical commentary on the narrative, and an old relative with dementia drifts in and out of lucidity. Aunt Pat, played with heartbreaking bitterness by Dearbhla Molloy, lost her beloved brother in 1916 and carries an uncompromising torch for the violent struggle.

Although Butterworth is English, The Ferryman feels like a thoroughly Irish play, not only because there is not a single false note in the dialogue. Irish literary influences are everywhere – from Heaney’s Tollund Man to Yeats’s The Stolen Child – and the dramaturgy is steeped in that of Tom Murphy and Brian Friel.

There is a dancing scene like in Dancing at Lughnasa but here it is to the sound of Teenage Kicks by the Undertones and is led by Shane Corcoran, a young IRA wannabe played with feral brilliance by Tom Glynn-Carney. It is a play about longing as well as the way the effects of violence seep through families and generations.

Above all it is about disappearance, interruption and the inconclusiveness that makes grieving and action impossible. The Ferryman of the title is Charon in Virgil’s Aeneid, who ferries souls across the river Styx to the Underworld. He may not carry across the souls of those who are unburied, who must roam the earth for a thousand years.

Listening to one of the characters in the play describe their predicament, I can’t have been the only one to think of the dozens whose incinerated bodies lie on the upper floors of Grenfell Tower, unidentified and unburied, their souls abandoned and left to wander the earth.

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