“The Ferryman,” a drama about a former IRA member’s attempts to outrun his past, is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. It has earned critical raves and previously picked up a boatload of Olivier awards during its London run. “The Ferryman” is also a showcase for a number of notable character actors, including two Irish performing legends, Fionnula Flanagan and Dearbhla Molloy, who portray two eccentric aunts, one a political firebrand, the other a gentle soul who is losing her grasp on reality.
Set during the Troubles, the epic story centers on the family of Quinn Carney, a former activist who gave up the fight for quiet family life in rural Northern Ireland. An unforeseen tragedy upends their peaceful existence, leading to a bloody reckoning. Jez Butterworth, who previously took Broadway by storm with “Jerusalem,” wrote “The Ferryman,” and Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “American Beauty” and “Skyfall,” directs.
Flanagan is best known to audiences for her work on Showtime’s “Brotherhood,” while Molloy was a Tony Award nominee for “Dancing at Lughnasa.” With “The Ferryman,” Molloy earned an Olivier Award for her performance as the Margaret Thatcher-hating Aunt Pat, whereas Flanagan joined the cast as Aunt Maggie “Faraway,” a wheelchair bound woman who occasionally breaks through her dementia to offer oracular pronouncements.
The actresses spoke to Variety on a recent fall afternoon and reflected on the play’s look at grief and loss, the difficulties of working with a sprawling cast that includes livestock, and the rigors of doing eight shows a week.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for “The Ferryman.”
Had you worked together before “The Ferryman”?
Fionnula Flanagan: We hadn’t worked together, but of course I knew Dearbhla’s work. We were part of that constellation of Irish actors, so we were aware of each other.
Dearbhla Molloy: We went to the same school. Not quite at the same time. I must have been in the same class as one of her sisters, but I haven’t worked it out. It was an Irish speaking school in the center of Dublin.
Fionnula, did you see the original London production before you joined the Broadway cast?
Flanagan: I didn’t want to see it. When Sam hired me, I could have gone to London. They were still performing. But I didn’t want to watch someone else’s interpretation of it.
Molloy: You were wise.
Flanagan: They’d had eight weeks rehearsal before they opened in London. I had two weeks in London and three weeks here. It would have been difficult not to take on board something of the other actress’ performance. I really took the role because I wanted to work with Sam Mendes. I wanted the experience of having him shape the performance.
Dearbhla, has the play changed much from the version that you performed in London?
Molloy: The play itself is slightly different. It’s a different iteration of the cast. Sam had time to focus more. The combination of all that together, but most particularly because Sam was able to work more forensically on the text. Sam had to do a degree of dramaturgy as as we went on with rehearsals. It’s a very big play. I don’t think Sam would have been nearly as good at putting it on stage if he didn’t have two huge Bond films under his belt. The amount of energy it took to marshal it into a coherent thing that audiences could watch on stage that was pretty intense. When we were rehearsing in London, the play wasn’t finished.
It wasn’t finished?
Molloy: We didn’t have an end. There were a few tried out and this was the one that was decided upon, but it wasn’t decided until the last minute.
How different were they?
Molloy: Quite different. In one of the endings, Quinn is shot dead. I can’t remember the details. It was at the end of the whole rehearsal process that we finally hit on our end.
The play is three hours. There are shootings, stabbings, and a ton of dramatic confrontations and revelations. Are you physically spent after each performance?
Flanagan: Particularly on matinee days. It comes to the point where you think, ‘Didn’t I just say that?’ And of course you did say it three hours ago. But at the end of the night you feel a high.
Molloy: Not me. I feel exhausted. I put so much energy into being angry. Doing it for a long time in London was a real challenge, because sometimes there’s a boundary blur between me and the person I’m playing. I need to close the book on that person or she’ll inhabit my dreams and my thoughts and my personality. When I remember to close her off, that conserves energy, but if I didn’t I’d be whacked. This woman I play has nuclear anger. I’d hate to be carrying that around off-stage as well.
You both lived through this historical moment. What’s it like to be in a play that deals with a time period you know well?
Flanagan: The play rises above politics. It has much more to do with life and death. Things like this did happen in the north. There were atrocities on all sides.
Molloy: The context of this play is not realistic. It mythologizes the moment. It’s a play. It doesn’t attempt to be historically factual.
Flanagan: The play is a pretty true reflection of what a Catholic family — some of whom are nationalistic, some of whom are not, some of whom want to to be involved in a struggle, some of whom don’t. I thought that was accurate. Many families were divided right down the middle.
Do American audiences have a different response to the play given our relative unfamiliarity with the Troubles?
Molloy: They respond more to the presentation of a family on the stage rather than a family at a particular point in history. They latch on to the love story more, which is really what the play is at its core.
There are two dozen people in the cast, which is big for a Broadway play, to say nothing of rabbits and a goose. What’s it like to deal with that kind of menagerie?
Molloy: It’s certainly challenging back stage.
Flanagan: We’ve all had to double up and triple up in dressing rooms. There just aren’t enough dressing rooms. The goose is in a pen and so are the rabbits. They have a dressing room down in the basement and they have a minder.
Molloy: Their dressing room is bigger than ours.