Despite it's roughly-agreed thirty year span, how many plays have directly addressed The Troubles in Northern Ireland? Bearing in mind how deep it ran in both Ireland and the UK's collective psyche it cannot be said to have populated the main stages of the West End, the fringe maybe, cinema occasionally, the West End no.
But Jez Butterworth has taken the queasy atmosphere in 1981 Northern Ireland and filtered it through a classic tragedy-style plot where the sins of the past come back to haunt those still living, both innocent and guilty. But within that framework there is also a stunted love story, comedy, tension, poetry, swearing, 80s pop, the insidious nature of teenage peer-pressure and the constant undertow of nationalist resentment.
Dawn breaks as a couple are playing drunken what-if games in a cottage kitchen, they obviously have a special, easy relationship with each other but we soon find out, as the rest of the extended family wake up and enter the kitchen, that they are brother-in-law and sister-in-law and the oncoming harvest will change their relationship forever.
The very first scene sets a lingering discordant note: Father Horrigan is having a secret meeting with Muldoon, a man who exudes a chilly power. A body has been discovered in a peat bog, hands tied, shot in the head. The priest identifies him as a member of the Carney family. The man's brother Quinn was once an IRA 'soldier' but renounced them at the time of his brother's disappearance to run his father's farm in the countryside with his wife, seven children and extended family. Muldoon blackmails the priest to go to the farm and persuade Quinn not to make waves.
Quinn and his wife Mary had invited sister-in-law Caitlin to move into their home with her son Oisin ten years ago and has made herself indispensable to the family, with Mary retreating for longer periods to her bedroom claiming illness, Caitlin has assumed the role of homemaker. She has never given up the hope that her husband is alive in England, having been fed with rumours of sightings.
The rambling farmhouse is also home to aunts Maggie and Pat, uncle Patrick, and also Tom, a simple-minded Englishman who have lived with the family since being discovered as a child lost and disheveled. Aunt Maggie has dementia but her lucid moments are shot through with a strange mysticism, Aunt Pat is a hardline Republican with a venal streak toward Caitlin who is wrestling with her deepening affection for Quinn who, in turn, is trying to hide his feelings for her now Mary is growing colder towards him.
All this is disrupted when Father Horrigan arrives with his painful news which sends Quinn and Caitlin into shock. She tells Quinn that she will wait till the harvest has been collected before telling her son but Oisin overhears them and is plunged into despair. The harvest is gathered, helped by their three young Corcoran cousins, but the celebrations are interrupted by the appearance of Muldoon, greeted as a hero by Aunt Pat and at arm's length by Quinn.
Muldoon reveals his real interest in the Carney family, the news of the IRA hunger strikers dying has given them massive public sympathy and it would be counter-productive for Quinn or Caitlin to announce that the IRA murder their own. The political and the personal erupt into a night of growing tensions and betrayals before an explosion of violence that will scar the family forever...
Sam Mendes's production is a masterpiece of delayed tension; it's always there running under the action, you are just never sure when it will erupt - will it be the internal family pressure that explodes into violence or will it be external world that blows the family apart? However it is both that leads the stage at the end to resemble a Jacobean tragedy. I must admit the ultimate sudden bloodbath made me think of David Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE which pulled my focus; the violence is necessary but I hoped it might be reached through the insidious emotional pressure of Aunt Pat and Mary.
But THE FERRYMAN is it's own entity and it's sheer breadth of invention and dramatic sweep belies it's rural farmhouse look - it also feels more of a whole than JERUSALEM which was powered by it's larger-than-life central character of 'Rooster', here Quinn is almost the still centre of the vortex with his family providing a non-stop array of vividness. As Quinn, Paddy Considine is never less than watchable, his remarkable capacity for submerged hurt and anger is never far away, in this his stage debut.
Considine's slow-burn performance is all the more remarkable in that he is surrounded by actors playing to the back of the balcony - but in a good way! Sam Mendes has assembled an excellent cast who all contribute much to the play's success.
It is a production that for once boasts four key female roles, all played wonderfully: Laura Donnelly gives a quietly luminous performance as Caitlin, trapped by circumstance in Quinn's family but unwilling to move on for her love of him; her final scenes of desperation ring shockingly true, willing to accept the most degrading of circumstances to save her beloved and his family. Her scenes with Genevieve O'Reilly as Quinn's wife Mary were shot through with tension, a sisterly relationship which is undercut with feelings of bitter antagonism and jealousy.
This uneasy relationship is further undermined by the marvellously devious aunt Pat played with icy fury by Dearbhla Molloy, here looking like a dessicated husk of a woman. Pat is the rural queen of the killer put-down and the laughs she easily wins from the audience tend to die on the lips when you realize how venal she is, yet she is given a believable history of devotion to the Cause through witnessing the death of her brother, killed defending the Post Office in Dublin during the Easter Rising.
Her counterpoint is Brid Brennan's aunt Maggie who for long stretches of the play simply stares from her chair in the kitchen but who wakes from her reveries occasionally to deliver truths learnt on her internal journeys in her mind. It was marvellous to see these two exceptional Irish actresses given such fine roles to play.
Des McAleer is very good as the comical and understanding uncle Patrick with a fondness for Greek myths, while Stuart Graham is frightening as Muldoon, the softly-spoken IRA chief who understands the weaknesses within the Carney family all too well. There is fine work too from John Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle, the simple-minded displaced Englishman who provokes a catalogue of disasters when he clumsily proposes to Caitlin hours after she learns she is a widow, and from the always dependable Gerard Horan as the blackmailed Father Horrigan.
At the start of the third act, Quinn's two sons have an early hours drink with their Corcoran cousins which turns more menacing as they show that they are ready to stumble into tragedy themselves. The feeling of lives about to take a turn down the wrong road was expertly conveyed and in particular I liked the very believable filial performances of the Corcoran cousins: Séan Basil Crawford - as the oldest Shane, already in too deep with the IRA - Conor MacNeill and Oliver Finnegan.
The farmhouse was wonderfully evoked in Rob Howell's cluttered, lived-in set and Peter Mumford's excellent lighting illuminated the 24 hours that devastate the Carney family.
THE FERRYMAN has nagged away at me since I saw it and will for some time to come - I urge you to see this tender and terrifying tale of hidden love and hidden lies. It's playing at the Gielgud Theatre until the 6th of January.