Butterworth. THE FERRYMAN.
Butterworth, Jez. The Ferryman
Publisher: Nick Hern Books, 2017.
Premiere: Royal Court Jarwood Theatre Downstairs, London, 2017
Setting: Rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, 1981 and Derry (the prologue)
21 Characters as follows:
3 IRA men: Muldoon & henchmen Malone & Magennis
Fr. Horrigan, Armagh village priest
Caitlin Carney (widow of Seamus) and her son Oisin
Quinn Carney (brother of Seamus), wife Mary, & children Mercy, Nunu, Shena, JJ, Honor, Michael, and infant Bobby (not in character count).
Uncle Patrick Carney and his wife Aunt Patricia
Old Aunt Maggie Far Away
Tom Kettle, British by birth, a somewhat retarded farm hand
Shane, Diarmaid, and Declan Corcoran, cousins of the Carney’s from town
Prologue: It’s the Thatcher era with the Northern Ireland guerrilla warfare against the Crown. Muldoon, accompanied by Malone and Magennis, meet Fr. Horrigan in a Derry back alley, tell him about Seamus Carney whose body has been found in a peat bog, and question him about Seamus’s brother Quinn. Threats are unspoken but palpable.
Act One: Early morning the next day. The Quinn Carney household awakens on the first day of harvest. There are a dozen people of all ages chaotically milling about, arguing, telling stories, singing songs, eating, drinking, and getting ready for a day of harvesting. In the process, the audience gets to know most of them and to learn a little about their background, concerns, etc. The harvest goose was accidentally freed by Oisin and then is caught by Tom Kettle, etc. Eventually Fr. Horrigan comes in and informs Quinn of Seamus’s body being found. Quinn tells Caitlin (to whom he seems to have a strong attraction), and Oisin overhears. Caitlin decides not to tell the family until the next day for fear of putting a damper on the family’s joy in the harvest. Horrigan tells Quinn that Muldoon is going to come to the farm: “He’s not finished with you.”
Act Two. That evening. Once more, there is a lot of story telling, singing, eating and drinking, and general celebrating, now enhanced by the Corcoran boys who have come to join in the work of the harvest. In the middle of the harvest feast, Aunt Patricia (who is a strong IRA supporter) comes in and announces the death of one of the IRA prisoners who has been on a hunger strike. Soon after, Muldoon shows up, accompanied by his henchmen, ostensibly to offer condolences for Seamus’s death, which of course takes most of the family by surprise. Muldoon’s real reason for visiting, however, is to make a demand of Quinn. Apparently Quinn and Seamus were part of the IRA and Muldoon even suffered torture for shielding Quinn. But then Quinn withdrew from the IRA and soon thereafter Seamus disappeared, apparently as punishment for Quinn’s desertion. Muldoon and company had then kept hope of Seamus’ survival alive by reports of Seamus sightings. Now Muldoon demands that Quinn and his family not link the IRA with Seamus’s death in order to avoid bad PR for the IRA. Quinn tells him to leave. Muldoon (and others as well) hint at Quinn’s relationship with Caitlin.
Act Three. Very late that night. The Carney and Corcoran boys tell stories, drink, and sing, and Shane Corcoran brags about doing IRA jobs for Muldoon. Shane suggests the Carney’s are slackers in the war. Shane tells Oisin that he saw Tom Kettle proposing to Caitlin and he hints at killing Tom (an Englishman) with an old pistol Aunt Pat keeps under her bed. Fr. Horrigan comes, apparently sent by Muldoon to put pressure on Quinn; he tells Quinn that Caitlin has confessed her love for him. There are scenes between Quinn and Mary talking about their strained relationship and between Quinn and Caitlin in which they confess their mutual love. Caitlin begs him to go along with Muldoon. Muldoon and company show up, and Quinn agrees to be quiet if Muldoon will leave them alone. Muldoon, however, demands that Caitlin and Oisin move into Derry and live under his supervision, no doubt as a hook into Quinn; Quinn says no way. Tom comes in carrying Oisin’s body. Oisin had entered his cabin to kill him with Pat’s pistol, and Tom strangled him; he has the pistol. By this time the whole family is aroused. Shane, dead drunk, blabs about Muldoon’s business. Caitlin picks up a straight razor and threatens Muldoon, but Quinn takes it away. Then, without warning, Quinn slits Muldoon’s throat and shoots Magennis dead with the pistol. He sends Malone into town saying that he has now avenged Seamus’s death, and anyone coming to the farm had better be ready. Aunt Maggie hears the banshees coming, and apparently so does the audience. End.
The play is realistic—almost naturalistic—except for the screaming of the banshees at the end. It includes a lot of songs, all sung by the characters as part of the action. The play’s considerable length is due in large part to the inclusion of stores told by the characters, stories that, while interesting and perhaps thematically related, are not crucial for the action. There are many very long speeches, more than are normally encountered in contemporary plays.
The prologue delivers the establishing event—the discovery of Seamus’s body—and also builds a sense of foreboding.
All three acts are similarly constructed. The beginning of each, well into the middle and beyond, consists of stories, songs, the interrelations of the family, and a few hints of the tensions of the situations. Then, right at the end of each, there’s a sudden impact, none greater than the one in Act Three that must certainly leave the audience’s mouths gaping.
Staging this play would be an immense undertaking. Twenty-one actors aged 90 down to 7, plus an infant; a realistically rendered, working kitchen; a live goose plus a cooked one that is eaten on stage; song and dance; stage combat; and a terrifically bloody climax at the end.