Glorious is not too strong a word for director Sam Mendes’s production of Jez Butterworth’s heartbreaker of a play, “The Ferryman.” Flawless ensemble work by a large and splendid cast adds depth to the characters in this sprawling drama that is at once a domestic calamity and a political tragedy.
The year is 1981 and Ireland has been partitioned for more than half a century. Ten Republican participants in the Irish Hunger Strikes would die that year, beginning with the political martyr Bobby Sands. More than 100,000 people would attend his funeral in Northern Belfast, causing Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, to recruit new members and grow in strength. Soon, the bombings would begin.
For now, though, thoughts of the Troubles are well out of mind in the large Carney household, barely contained in the heavily rustic setting designed with impressive visual integrity by Rob Howell (set) and Peter Mumford (lighting). It’s harvest time, the most solemn and joyous time of the year in rural Ireland, where native roots go deep. From “Jerusalem,” a previous Broadway transfer, we already know that Butterworth traces native roots all the way back to ancient times. Here, Uncle Patrick Carney, the family patriarch played with great authority and grand humor by Mark Lambert, takes a broad view of these connections.
“All Hail Demeter!” Uncle Pat jovially toasts the harvest gods with a glass of good Irish whiskey. “Goddess of the Corn. Mother of the Harvest. You who made the first loaf, the bread our Savior broke — and this here wee drop of Bushmills. Slainte!”
That belief in the magic of the ancient gods is rooted in the very soil that nurtures the Carney clan and to which they will eventually return. As we learn in a tense prologue, one clan member, Sean Carney, missing these ten years, has already been laid in the bog — with a bullet in his head — long before his natural time.
The enchanted if foreboding sense of place is part of the family lore, captured in a folk song sung by Aunt Maggie Far Away, who is played with an ethereal air by the treasured Fionnula Flanagan: “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a Fairy hand in hand / For the world’s more full of weeping / Than you can understand.” Aunt Maggie Far Away, who came by her name for good reason, is the family soothsayer, the teller of tales that make the little ones go bump in the night.
Begged by the children for a creepy story, she complies with a tale of “the great Faerie battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tanuth Dé!” that has everyone shivering with delight. “I love this one!” a little one exclaims. “It’s so violent!” For an encore, Maggie follows that one up with the story of her own secret love for one Francis John Patrick Maloney, a personal reminiscence of such painful beauty that it leaves a musical echo in the air.
Music is always in the air of this storytelling household, from the ribald songs the children chant and the boisterous choral clamor of the foot-stomping young men to the haunting airs that Aunt Maggie quietly hums from her seat in the warm corner of the kitchen. To that, we must add the music of Butterworth’s own prose, sweet as springtime, lush as summer, bittersweet as autumn, deathly as winter.
The domestic dramas in this household are as primal as those in any Greek tragedy, if not as classically restrained. Quinn Carney, the family breadwinner played with quiet conviction and an air of melancholy by Paddy Considine, oversees a household of seven children (some played by excellent child performers who are wonderfully unselfconscious), two aunts, an uncle and Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), the sturdy but secretly vulnerable kitchen goddess of this house. Drifting through the crowd, too, is Genevieve O’Reilly’s beautiful, wraithlike Mary.
At some point, Aunt Maggie’s tales of banshees and fairies give way to more ominous stories about the lives lost in civil strife, battles that are drawing closer by the minute to the Carney household. As a candid counterpoint to Aunt Maggie and her lovely, lyrical yarns, Butterworth gives us Aunt Patricia Carney, a blunt-spoken truth-teller in Dearbhla Molloy’s marvelously cruel and cranky performance. The unsentimental voice of reason, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Aunt Pat can always be counted on to cut through the romantic poetry and speak the bitter truth.
The tensions that are brewing in Act One come to a head in Act Two, when the harvest is in and the Carneys and the Corcorans and the rest of the harvesters sit down to eat the cooked goose that Caitlin has prepared for the feast. But it’s clear that this is only a momentary respite from the war that is rending Ireland. Uncle Pat makes the point obliquely, when he reminds the family that Darius The Great stopped The Persian War to give the Greeks time to harvest their grapes. “Because even a war-thirsty blood-monger like Darius knew the harvest is sacred. The harvest is breath and life and spirit and hope.”
The sad thing, indeed, the tragedy of it, is that this time, not even the harvest is sacred. And we can only watch in horror and dread as the extraordinary characters that Butterworth has brought to life are snuffed out, emotionally and in some cases literally, by political events that not even the harvest gods have the power to vanquish from this bloody, war-ridden earth.