Jezz Butterworth’s The Ferryman is not exactly poetry but there is a lot of poetry in it and as I have just been to see it, I thought I would try to articulate my mixed feelings about it. I went because I loved Jerusalem, because or despite having to teach it as an A-level text.
There are plenty of echoes of Jerusalem in this play, especially the mixture of high and pop culture and folk belief. Instead of the giants in Jerusalem, here we have banshees; instead of an alienated and abused girl singing at key moments there is a demented old lady who bursts into folk song; instead of a gaga Professor to introduce the canon, there is a very fluent great uncle who is given to reading Virgil in the small hours. Although the setting is very different, Derry rather than deepest Wiltshire, the setting is still rural and the characters are rooted in place.
The echoes are not confined to Jerusalem. The play makes so many nods to literary and dramatic tradition that it is sometimes difficult to see where post-modern intertextuality differs from second-hand material. The literary great-uncle seems descended from Brian Friel’s hedge school-master in Translations, whilst the character of Tom Kettle owes more than a little to Lenny in Of Mice and Men. The set seems to come from Synge by way of McDonagh and I cannot be the only Philistine who thought of the film Michael Collins when the dotty aunty launched into “She Moved through the Fair”, provoking more gloom and foreboding. The reference to a pistol still hanging around since 1916 recalled the theatrical adage that if there’s a gun on the table in Act One it will be fired in Act 3. Another snook cocked at dramatic wisdom is the overwhelming presence of animals and children, guaranteed scene-stealers and potential distractions from the matter of the play.
However, these are minor gripes and I admit that after a shaky start, I was drawn into the play and carried along by its story. Butterworth, as before, raises interesting questions and the play is densely and theatrically textured. However, I was left with doubts and these concerned authenticity. This was symbolised for me by the weird and wonderfully mixed and inadequately sustained attempts at regional accents, although the dialect was more convincing, especially that of the male characters. This play, set at the time of the Hunger Strike, dealt with issues which are still controversial, urgent and painful. It is a play where the iniquity of the English throughout history and into the present is taken as a given; it should have made the English audience uncomfortable; instead, they lapped it up. At only one point did the reality of the Troubles break through, in Shane Corcoran’s long speech on the everyday experience of a young Catholic man in the city of Derry. Otherwise, the historical context just provided a backdrop for the exploration of what I heard one member of the audience describe as a ‘dysfunctional family’. I have heard King Lear described in the same terms.
I think that at the core of the discomfort I feel about this play is that it is about ‘them’, whereas Jerusalem with its questioning of English identity was about ‘us’. Moreover, Jerusalem was set in the ‘now’, whereas The Ferryman attempts to sanitise itself through being ‘then’, before the Good Friday Agreements, before the Nobel Peace Prizes, before the English had been able to put the Troubles to bed. But this problem has not gone away; ironically, it has come back into English consciousness through the shambolic Tory deals with the DUP and the threats of a closed border posed by Brexit. For the people of Northern Ireland, the problem has never gone away. The wounds of the past fifty years are still as raw as the memory of 1916 is for the character of Aunt Pat in the play, and that is true for those on each side of the political divide. The play is set firmly within the republican Catholic culture, so I suppose it doesn’t matter that there is almost no reference to loyalists or Protestants, apart from one typically tasteless joke about the Elephant Man. (This is not an objection to tasteless jokes.) However, this leads to an oversimplified view of the struggle as a seamless struggle of the Irish against the English, which distorts the historical realities of the times.
More successful, in my opinion, is the way in which the play evokes the atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty which still pervades the society. Who did what and why, whether for political idealism, criminal gain, cash, because of blackmail, self-interest, fear or ignorance –these are still the questions being asked, or worse, not asked, within society and within families. The figure of the IRA commander is chilling but convincing; hard to imagine that such a character could ever mellow into one of the Chuckle Brothers. The priest, himself a victim, is believable if not admirable, a reminder that the clergy, like their secular brothers and sisters, grew up in the same system. The theme of the misplaced or displaced, whether human or creature, runs throughout the play, from the disappeared Seamus Carney to his wife and child who live on the charity of his brother, to the stray Englishman given shelter on the Carney farm, to the psychologically lost figure of Aunt Maggie Far Away who suffers from some kind of dementia, with occasional intervals of lucidity. Then there is Mary Carney, wife of Quinn, who spends most of her time upstairs, seeming to have suspended her life, while Oisin, son of the missing Seamus, keeps hiding or running away. The theme is underscored by the disappearance of the goose and by Aunt Maggie’s rendition of Yeats’ song, “The Stolen Child”. However, what really matters is the effect of this missingness, this not knowing or lack of closure, on those who are left. Mary Carney has put off confronting her husband over the unwelcome presence of his brother’s young attractive wife in the household; “Now is not the time to be having this conversation” she tells him over the years. The breakdown in verbal communication has not prevented or perhaps has even promoted the production of seven children, in step succession down to an eleven-month baby. As the play progresses and the family is forced to deal with the knowledge that the missing Seamus was murdered and has been dead for ten years, the cracks and divisions appear and the image of the closely-knit extended family is shattered as secrets from the past emerge.
Counterpointing or perhaps complementing this tragic theme is the more positive emphasis on story-telling, something else which is familiar from Jerusalem. In that play stories provide a gateway into the imagination, an escape from the mundanity of life in a Wiltshire village. Here the stories are told as the narratives people can live by, the way they make sense of and justify their lives. Aunt Pat clings to her story of Pat and the Easter Rising; Shane and Declan Corcoran create a place for themselves in Republican mythology as they tell the story of their attendance at Bobby Sands’ funeral. Uncle Patrick is an inveterate storyteller. However, characters are not allowed to tell their stories without interruption from their listeners, who monitor what they hear and offer improvements, making it clear that they know that these are stories first and history second, if at all. Only Aunt Maggie tells her stories uninterrupted to an audience of little girls, who then question her about the future as if she were a Sybil, gifted with prophetic power. Yet Aunt Maggie, a bit like Caitlin, Seamus’ wife, finds herself caught by different versions of her story. She tells her great-nieces about her unrequited love for Francis Maloney, but later on she is shown believing that she has married him and he has deserted her. Similarly, Caitlin seems to have known her husband was dead from the beginning while simultaneously acting out the belief he was alive. Quinn is caught between two women; the surface story is that he and his wife are a devoted couple, while the sub-text tells of a broken relationship and an unacknowledged love of his sister-in-law. The entire family and community collude in supporting the surface story while being aware to different degrees of the underlying situation. In The Ferryman storytelling, for better or worse, is shown as part of the human condition.
So, an interesting play, a play worth seeing. How would it go down in Derry?