30 June 2017

The Ferryman at Gielgud Theatre was a complex tapestry of rich stories


I was impressed by Jerusalem, if not overwhelmed by it, and so a new Jez Butterworth play was always going to attract my attention. Adding the name Sam Mendes made it almost mandatory.

I still had my reservations though and my reluctance to pay full west-end prices so I went for a restricted view seat in the front row of the Grand Circle, A26, which set me back an inconsequential £24.50. I reasoned that the important part of the play would be the dialogue and so a good view did not matter. The best tickets were over £100 which is well above my theatre limit.

The view I got was looking through the handrails which actually worked well.

The Ferryman was a very busy play with an awful lot going on for three hours. The main plot concerned the discovered of a body of a man killed by the IRA ten years previously (1972) for, supposedly, betraying them in some way.

The main characters in the story were his brother and his wife who had moved into her brother-in-law's farm with his large family, they had seven children at the time of the play. Add to these an assortment of uncles, aunties, friends, helpers and some members of the IRA. That large cast bred a multitude of stories many, but not all, of which were wound up with the Troubles in Ireland. To give just two examples, an aunt had been at the Dublin GPO Riots in 1916 (part of the Easter Rising) and she later recited all of the names of the Hunger Strikers. Some of them had been at Bobby Sands' funeral and he was mentioned many times.

My Mum was an Irish Catholic from Straban on the border and many of the stories here resonated with things that Mum told me about her family. When we moved house in 1964 she wrote "Up the IRA" in large red letters on the hall wall before it was covered in wallpaper. She also sang me to sleep with rebel songs like, my favourite The Wild Colonial Boy. I believe that several members of her/my family spent time in the infamous H Blocks.

Around this large and dark theme of Irish political history there were lots of other things going on including an escaped goose, some rabbits, tales from Ancient Greece (where The Ferryman came from), fortune telling, teenage bragging, an affair, a proposal, a death, a harvest, some dancing and an awful lot of drinking and swearing.

To tell stories like this needed a good cast and there was one. Paddy Considine (hapless Guardian journalist in Bourne Ultimatum) led the family and the cast with notable help from Laura Donnelly (his sister in law) and from, to be honest, far too people for me to mention or to look up. The only one I had seen on stage before was Carla Langley.

It was the complex tapestry of stories and emotions that made The Ferryman such exceptional theatre. It's mood and pace swayed unpredictably as we followed the large and extended family through little more than one day. In doing so it followed other classics like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Long Day's Journey into Night in allowing us to see the story unfold in almost realtime.

I came to The Ferryman a little sceptical and left a firm fan. I hope to see a revival in a couple of years or, as things stand, this production again as it is already running through to January 2018.

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