Is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman an Irish Play?

I know I’m not the only person who was excited by the announcement last year that Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman was going to open in the Royal Court before a West End transfer. I managed to get a ticket for the Royal Court run on the day they were released, not realising that I was one of the people who would make that show the fastest to sell out in the Court’s history. It’s easy to understand why it was so popular: from Mojo to Jerusalem, Butterworth has been creating plays that are brilliantly plotted and which provide great roles for actors (Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, most famously).

But, similarly, I suspect I’m not the only Irish person who has been uncomfortable with some of the critical reactions to the play.

The Ferryman is set in Northern Ireland during the Hunger Strikes (that is, in the early 1980s), and explores the reactions of a republican family to the news that the body of one of their members – who had been “disappeared” by the IRA ten years’ earlier – has just been discovered. It’s a powerful thriller that is written like a conventional tragedy, with the action unfolding across a three-act structure that covers a 24-hour period in the farmhouse of this family.

Reviews have been universally positive: it’s mostly been getting five-star ratings, the word “masterpiece” is being used to describe it, and people are talking about Butterworth as the major dramatist of his generation.

I’ve no argument with any of that, but what has been strange – to me anyway – has been the willingness of so many critics to declare this a “great Irish play”. This statement from Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer gives a good example of what many others have been saying:

The play joins the canon of Irish drama, from Seán O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, through Brendan Behan, to the work of Martin McDonagh, Enda Walsh and Conor McPherson.

I think statements like this provide evidence of a missed opportunity to grapple with what this play is really attempting. The significance of Buttterworth writing this play is not that it is Irish, or part of the canon of Irish drama, but that (as Beckett would have put it), au contraire, it is an English play.

I’m not talking here about the passport or ancestry of the playwright, but rather about how the play situates itself in relation to dramatic traditions and the broader society. One of the great things about Butterworth’s play is that it shows an English dramatist in very careful dialogue with Irish theatre, and our culture more broadly. There are lots of echoes in there – of Heaney’s ‘Tollund Man’ poems, for example, as well as plenty of Yeats (“The Stolen Child” especially). But the dramatists that the play is most carefully engaged with are Tom Murphy and Brian Friel (the two who, interestingly, were not included in Thorpe’s list).

If you know your Irish drama you’ll pick up on the echoes very quickly. The family in Butterworth’s play are called the Carneys, for instance. Where have we seen a tragedy about an Irish family with that name before? Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark. The play is set during harvest time, features a young male’s attempts to build a kite, has a dance scene at a pivotal moment – one which is interrupted unexpectedly… This is not so much a nod to Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa as an attempt to bring what was implicit about violence in Friel’s play fully to the fore. And in calling the play The Ferryman, Butterworth is (probably coincidentally) drawing on a metaphor that Friel used in the play he wrote after Lughnasa: Wonderful Tennessee (which also thinks about the River Styx and Charon in relation to Irish histories)

And there are other echoes… The play features an elderly woman who emerges from her dementia to provide moments of stunning lucidity: not just Murphy’s Bailegangaire but its many imitators are being evoked here. And in what Butterworth does to bring the Irish country kitchen into dialogue with a Greek tragic sensibility, it’s impossible not to see some of the formal advances made by Marina Carr in On Rafftery’s Hill or Portia Coughlan or The Mai.

Watching the play, I didn’t see the use of those tropes as acts of appropriation, but rather as an attempt by an English playwright to come to terms with a national dramatic culture that is adjacent to but different from his own. Frank McGuinness did something like this from an Irish point of view when he wrote Mutabilitie and Speaking Like Magpies, for example. So The Ferryman should be understand as an English play in the way that Lucy Prebble’s Enron (set in America) and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica (set in China and America) are both English plays: the setting may not be in Britain but the context – the focal point from which the authors’ questions are being asked – comes from contemporary English or British culture and concerns.

Haunting … Laura Donnelly as Caitlin in The Ferryman.

And just as Prebble’s Enron failed to find an American audience but is still an excellent play, I suspect that The Ferryman would not be as well received in Ireland as it has been in London.

For my own part, upon first viewing I found the familiarity of many of the tropes distracting. I hadn’t read the script or any reviews before seeing it, but I’d worked out early on that there would be a dance scene, and was unsurprised to see how it developed. And likewise the use of the name ‘Carney’ and some other nods to Murphy made a few things evident early on. There are also frequent references to banshees (hence the comparisons to McPherson in many of the reviews). These are well handled in the production but if, like me, you have seen Darby O’Gill and the Little People at every St Patrick’s Day since you were four, you might find them a little twee. And that goes for the use of melodrama in the play too: there are times when some of the scenes feel like they’d been written by John B Keane – which is neither a good nor a bad thing, but if you have seen Sive done badly, you can imagine how a lesser production of The Ferryman could draw laughs rather than the gasps or horror and sadness that it so frequently provokes.

And there are all the other reactions an Irish person might have when watching a play like this in London. The accents are not always precise, and I was not always comfortable with the audience’s laughter at the characters’ attitude to alcohol, or their bad language, especially from the children. But I would say the same about watching the plays of McDonagh, McPherson, and many other dramatists,  outside Ireland. And of course I am not myself from Northern Ireland, so it’s probably the case that several references were lost on me too.

And the point is this: none of that matters because the play was not written for an Irish audience or an Irish company – or a Northern Irish audience or company either. I think it needs instead to be seen in the tradition of English plays that aim to explore the relationship that England has with Ireland – it’s similar to (but also different from) plays like Rudkin’s Afore Night Come, Brenton’s Romans in Britain, and England’s Ireland (co-written by David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, and others) – or even to some of Shakespeare’s references to Ireland (as the place that always screws things up for kings who ought to be focussing on more immediate priorities).

In his exploration of how Margaret Thatcher’s policies impacted upon the Hunger Strikes, and in his  discussion of the British Army’s actions in Derry during that period, Butterworth presents  the Troubles not as a result of atavism, barbarism, backwardness or something that is happening “over there”. He shows the Troubles unfolding in a political and social context that absolutely implicates the English government (and the society that elected it), without at any time overlooking the brutality and cynicism of the IRA.

I found this very powerful, especially given how Northern Ireland has been so thoroughly neglected and forgotten, especially during the last year, by the British government. We have Tory members who are prepared to threaten war over Gibraltar but no-one in that party seems to have considered how Brexit would affect Northern Ireland – just as it’s amazing that no-one seems too concerned that the NI Assembly remains suspended. It’s positive to see the Royal Court and Butterworth working to ensure that Northern Ireland is seen not as “that place over there” but rather as a part of the UK. This is not to suggest that there is any sort of unionist approach here – far from it – but rather that the play demonstrates that Northern Ireland needs to be noticed and understood as part of a shared history.

So in Butterworth’s attempts to work out the relationships between Irish culture, Northern Irish history (and culture), English dramatic history, the tragic form, the cinematic thriller, and much more – we have a play that is doing something very interesting and important.

This is why the critical reaction has seemed like a missed opportunity.

I’ve written before of my concern that internationally, the “Irish play” is now seen as a genre that anyone can write in, regardless of whether they know the country or not. John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar is an example of this phenomenon; so is Richard Eyre’s recent decision to perform Pirandello in rural Irish accents at the National; we might also think of The Night Season by Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Whether you think those plays or productions were good or bad (and Shanley’s was well received in the US, while the two NT productions were quite well received), there are political and cultural consequences that arise when you see another country’s national dramatic tradition as a sub-genre within your own canon – or when you use another country’s language or culture as a metaphor for something in your own society. These strategies have the impact of separating Irish drama from Irish society, narrowing the ways in which our playwrights can achieve international success – while also rendering less visible the Irishness of people whose plays don’t conform to expectations. This goes for actors too: for me, one of the most interesting things about Denise Gough’s performance in People, Places and Things was how her Irishness fed into it – but I haven’t seen that discussed in any detail anywhere, probably because the play didn’t “read” as Irish in any other way.

The risk of seeing The Ferryman as Irish is that it banishes the play back over the Irish sea: it’s a work that should (from a London perspective) be seen as being about “us” but is being resituated as being about “them”.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not attacking critics here: most of them don’t have the space or time to get into these kinds of complexities. But I do think the reception of Butterworth’s play reveals some uncomfortable truths about the Irish play in London (and elsewhere) at present.

There’s also a risk too that the success of The Ferryman will overshadow the work of the many writers from Northern Ireland who have considerably more complex and interesting things to say about life there. This would not be Butterworth’s fault, but I do think that there’s a need for much greater awareness that this work exists – that Northern ireland is speaking for and about itself too.

I think The Ferryman is a very good –  in fact, often excellent – play. Many of the performances are great – Laura Donnelly’s especially so. There is something both exciting and bittersweet about seeing an Irish story being told with such a huge cast (no Irish company could afford to stage this play), and with such a clear commitment to the highest possible production values.

It’s a play that takes a while to sink in. I saw it a few days ago, and have read the script – but I feel that I need to see it again in order to start to come to terms with it properly. I hope I’ll find a way to catch it again during its West End run… So I am sure I’ll have much more to say about it myself in the future.

In the meantime I think there’s a really interesting conversation about this play waiting to happen….

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