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….

Talking About Thomas Kilroy

I was delighted to recently receive a copy of one of the latest publications from Carysfort Press: Guy Woodward’s edited collection Talking about Thomas Kilroy.

This book collects a series of talks that were given at a Trinity College symposium about Kilroy in 2011 – and although  it is short, it succeeds in capturing well the complexity, depth and importance of the work of one of our most important writers. It’s also a surprisingly enjoyable read: as the title implies, the authors of the papers write in a conversational tone, often moving from incisive critical analysis to revealing anecdote.


For example, Antony Roche recalls attending the premiere of The Death and Resurrection of Mr Roche, the 1968 play that was probably the first Irish drama to feature an explicitly gay character. He’d been brought by his parents, who were, he said “probably drawn … by the curiosity of seeing our name in the title”. The titular Mr Roche is described in the play as ‘the queer of Dunleary’, where the Roches themselves lived at that time. This prompted an acquaintance to approach Tony’s father at the interval: “You kept it well hid boy, wha?” he said.


This is a funny story but as Roche points out, it also reveals how Dublin audiences were willing to accept plays about gay characters (albeit with some reservations).


There’s a similarly revealing anecdote in Nicholas Grene’s essay (which opens the collection), about Kilroy and modernism, in which Grene recalls playing a role in an amateur production of a play about the flight of the earls. “I played the O’Donnell” writes Grene: “my main function was to die of a fever in Rome in the second act, feverishly declaring nostalgic memories of my native Donegal”. Grene remembered little of that play: “’tons of buttermilk’ is the only phrase I can recall of my lines,’ he confesses.


Again this is funny, but Grene uses the anecdote as a jumping off point for a fascinating discussion of Kilroy’s The O’Neill (premiered at the Abbey in 1969), noting its links to Friel’s Making History. He goes on then to survey Kilroy’s work in the context of modernism and Irish modernity, bringing us right up to Kilroy’s wonderful adaptation of Spring Awakening, the 2009 Christ Deliver Us!


The collection also features an essay by Peter Fallon, who has published all of Kilroy’s plays. In addition to offering an interesting account of Fallon’s Gallery Press, he also provides some revealing discussion of Kilroy’s work – which he, like everyone in the book, acknowledges is difficult to categorise. Nevertheless, Fallon suggests that the plays can be seen as representing a “collision between self and social pressure” and, as such, represent “portraits of the artist”. This is a useful way to think about Kilroy’s plays and other writings.


We also have transcripts of two talks, one about reading Kilroy (chaired by Christina Hunt Mahony and given mostly by academics) and the other about directing him (chaired by Emer O’Kelly, and given mostly by practitioners). While I tend to balk at the separation of these two groups from each other, here it works effectively, simply because it demonstrates their shared approach and attitude to Kilroy’s work. There is a clear understanding throughout the book of how his plays demand and reward close reading and are steeped in literary allusion. There’s also a strong awareness throughout of what is often referred to as his theatricality – by which I think the speakers mean his astonishing awareness of theatrical space (in terms of both movement and design), not to mention his ongoing creative conversations with figures such as Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde and Pirandello.


And, appropriately enough, the collection also features Kilroy himself. There is an essay from him  entitled “the Intellectual on Stage” which I think might also be seen as a “portrait of the artist” even though it explores works by Beckett, Yeats and Shaw. And there is an excerpt from Blake, Kilroy’s as yet unproduced play about the poet of the same name. The collection is rounded out with a transcription of a public interview between Adrian Frazier and Kilroy which (by the way) features a question from our now President Michael D Higgins.


The book can be read and enjoyed in a single sitting; as I hope to have suggested above, it is as entertaining as it is informative. But it also left me wanting more (often the sign of a good academic study). There has been a special edition of Irish University Review dedicated to Kilroy’s work, and Jose Lanters is working on a book about his plays (having heard some of her conference papers on this subject, I think that this is going to have a major impact on the study of Kilroy). There’s also a very good study by Thierry Dubost from 2007 (originally published in French): it deserves to be better known.


For my part, a publication I’d love to see is a collected edition of Kilroy’s critical essays. His “Groundwork for an Irish Theatre” from 1959 is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for the work that would emerge in the 1960s (it also offers several as yet unfulfilled prompts to other practitioners). Some 40 years later, he wrote another essay in Eamonn Jordan’s Theatre Stuff called “A Generation of Playwrights” (originally published in 1992, I think): an essay that looks back on the work of Kilroy and his contemporaries. To read those two essays side-by-side is to form a clearer appreciation of how Irish drama has been shaped in the second half of the twentieth century – and to understand how central Kilroy has been to its shaping. He also has many excellent essays on Synge and Friel, among others.

These essays illustrate one of the things that I most value about Tom Kilroy and his art: he shows that the distinction between the playwright and the intellectual need not be absolute: the roles can be complementary and overlapping.


We’re fortunate in having here at NUI Galway the archive of Kilroy’s works. As the catalogue shows here  it is extraordinarily rich, presenting unpublished plays, drafts of existing work, and much more. The book includes some images from that collection, which give a nice taste of the kind of scholarship (and practice) that might be possible from this archive.

The book is available from Carysfort Press for the relatively modest price of €15; I note that Amazon are also selling it on Kindle for less than £7.




Christina Reid

I was very sad to learn yesterday of the death of Christina Reid, the announcement of which appears on the Lyric Theatre website. I’ve long appreciated and enjoyed Reid’s  plays, and on the two occasions when I met her she struck me as a lovely person: modest but passionate about her work, good humoured but serious about the capacity of theatre to change lives and to correct injustices.

Her work has sometimes been included in academic studies of recent Irish drama, mostly in discussions of theatre from Northern Ireland. That’s appropriate of course: most of her plays are set in the north, and many deal directly with the Troubles and its consequences. Reid was from a working class protestant background, and showed a rare ability to both value and criticise her community: she created characters who could be nostalgic about twelfth of July parades in the 1940s and ‘50s – and she could understand and express the importance of the First and Second World Wars to her community. But she was also able to analyse those things too, to incisively identify the roots of anti-Catholic prejudice, and to place the Civil Rights movement in the north in the context of international developments: not just civil rights in the United States but also the emergence of Second Wave feminism.

Indeed, Reid gave us one of the clearest feminist critiques of the Troubles, suggesting that sectarianism had the impact of obscuring many other forms of injustice, including the marginalisation and oppression of women on both sides of the conflict. She was also a working class playwright in the sense that Sean O’Casey (a clear influence) was a working class playwright: her theatre displays a fascination with and love of working class culture (music hall particularly), and a keen sense of social injustice. Reid’s plays give us many different characters and situations, but all of them share one important trait: they all dramatise the stories of people who attempt to realise themselves fully, refusing to be defined by roles imposed upon them by their families and communities.


I think her work can also be seen in the context of the politicised theatre that emerged in Britain from the late 1960s onwards. It’s always made sense to me to think of Reid’s drama in relation to plays from the 1970s and 1980s by Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and David Hare – work that combined an intense political engagement with a desire to do new things with popular forms. Reid’s work could also be compared with that of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy – two writers who worked within (and across)  the Irish and the British traditions and whose theatre has been neglected within Irish criticism (as Reid’s has).  I think it could be helpful to think of Reid as occupying a place in the development of a Brechtian theatre in Ireland: work, that is, that displays Brechtian forms and ideas (even if the writers/directors were not directly inspired by Brecht himself) – a pattern that might also include work by Tomas MacAnna, Mairead Ni Ghrada , Tom Murphy, Garry Hynes, Jimmy Fay, and others (including of course Arden and D’Arcy).

Reid also wrote plays that were popular: people enjoyed going to them and I think actors enjoy appearing in them too. Perhaps the most accessible was her first produced play, Tea in a China Cup, which premiered at the Lyric in 1983, where it told us the story of three generations of Belfast women (a set-up that would later become familiar, of course). As often happens in theatre about Northern Ireland, the play presents history not in terms of linear progress but as a series of cycles: we repeat ourselves over and again. We thus see the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s and early 1970s being set against earlier military conflicts, notably the two world wars. Reid keeps faith with her community’s need to see the first and second world wars as defining moments for them, but she also explores those wars from the perspectives of the women left behind rather than the men who went off to fight. Again like O’Casey, she uses that gendered perspective to think about heroism, military sacrifice, cycles of violence, and the legacies of the past.

So the china cup in the play’s title becomes a metaphor for identity. As a family heirloom it is passed down from one generation to the next, and it thus takes on value not just because of what it is but also because of what it meant to those who came before. Reid uses this simple object to ask how our communities should manage other forms of inheritance: she was showing that Northern Ireland would not find peace until people were wiling to let go of the past – but she also showed that many of our ties to the past are rooted in real feelings of love for family-members (and grief for their loss). She understood that the letting go of a community’s ideals can feel like an intimate betrayal of a loved one. And she sets out to show how such feelings can be acknowledged, accommodated, and overcome.

Another important play is Did You Hear the One About the Irishman? which was written in 1980 but premiered in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company on tour in the US. It (like China Cup) gives us a set-up that has since become  too familiar, focusing on a doomed relationship between a middle class Protestant woman and a working class Catholic male – the Troubles via Romeo and Juliet, in other words. Matters reach a suitably tragic ending for the pair, whose communities refuse to believe that their love for each other can be a good thing. But where the play becomes quite interesting is in its use of a framing device. Reid allows the action to be interrupted occasionally by a stand-up British comedian, who tells a series of offensive Irish jokes in the manner that was still very common on British TV at that time. By juxtaposing a tragic love story with stand-up comedy Reid was doing the things that made her work distinctive – blending high art with popular culture, using tragedy to critique comedy (and vice versa), and disrupting notions of “us” and “them”. She also challenges her English audiences to re-think their awareness of, and engagement with, Ireland generally, which she shows is more than a mere joke.

Also worth noting about this play is its use of role doubling, which cut across the different communities on either side of the Troubles. It’s a simple technique, but by using one body to play people on different sides of the conflict, Reid shows that the antagonisms between the communities may not be quite as insurmountable as might have been imagined. When Thomas Kilroy did something like this for Field Day with Double Cross at roughly the same time he was rightly praised for using the actor’s body to challenge political pieties – to show that certain forms of identity should be seen not as inherent but as performed. As is the way with these things, no-one has wanted to “go there” with Reid, but Kilroy and Field Day have been widely celebrated for this.

Reid’s most successful play was Joyriders, which is set in the Divis Flats. It is framed by a production of O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, setting up an interesting continuity between pre-Independence Dublin and Belfast in the 1980s. Again there’s great use of music in the play. Joyriders had a sequel in the 1990s called Clowns. Both work very well with young actors and of all of Reid’s plays they most merit production today.

The play I’m most interested in by Reid is The Belle of the Belfast City, which opened in Belfast in 1989, and which I was proud to be able to include in an anthology for Methuen Drama back in 2008. Again we have three generations of Belfast women, who gather together on the eve of a protest against the Anglo-Irish agreement. The youngest is Belle, who is a young black woman brought up mostly in London, who is visiting her Northern Irish relatives for the first time. We read much nowadays about plural Irish identities, but Reid was exploring this topic meaningfully 25 years ago – showing how race, gender, and disability function in her society. And in the character of Belle she gave us someone who could be faithful to her many identities (Irish, English, British, American, black, protestant, etc) without being imprisoned by any of them.


There’s also a fabulous send-up in the play of a particular style of firebrand unionist politician, whom Reid displays practising his speeches in a state of what she calls “masturbatory ecstasy”. By showing how politicians rehearse, she was also underlining the extent to which what they do is a performance, is theatrical. And from there it becomes possible to see how politics can be governed by self-interest, manipulation of the weak,  masculine insecurity and sexual dysfunction.


As mentioned above, I met Reid twice: first during a visit to NUI Galway in 2008 and then to the Synge Summer School in 2009. She was a very warm presence on both occasions: delighted to talk to our students but also interested in them and their own work and ideas. She was modest about her plays, but had a clear sense of what she was trying to do with them; she also spoke impressively about her determination to say what she felt needed to be said. For example, she mentioned how members of the UVF attended the production of The Belle of the Belfast City – as did the politician upon whom she based the main male character. I think most people would find such encounters intimidating (to say the least) but Reid was able to laugh about both of them.


She was also philosophical about her career. She enjoyed a lot of success in a relatively short period, with China Cup premiering in 1983 and Belle in 1989, with three other plays in between. Clowns followed in 1996. But other than that, she found it difficult to have her work produced from the 1990s onwards. There was an adaptation of Les Miserables in 1992, and she wrote a short play for the National Theatre’s Connections series of plays for young people towards the end of that decade. When asked about this, Reid suggested that she had benefited in the 1980s from the fact that her plays were topical: audiences in Britain and the US wanted to understand the Troubles better, and dramas like Reid’s managed to be both informative and (usually) uplifting. As Northern Ireland disappeared from the world’s headlines, so were there fewer opportunities to produce work about the north (Seamus Heaney has made a similar observation about his own career).


It is only fair to say that she also experienced some negative critical notices from time to time. When reading about her online today I came across the following quotation on the Ricorso website, from a review of a revival of Joyriders from 1995, which is described as “deeply flawed”


‘as with much of Christina Reid’s work, it is incurably sentimental, while the dramatic structure is non-existent … uses methods of narration abandoned in England in 1956…”


I would disagree with this assertion, of course. Her plays certainly have moments of sentimentality but I don’t think that’s the dominant mood in them (and what’s wrong with a bit of sentimentality anyway?). I also think that she did things that would later gain praise when done by other (male) writers. She wrote about the importance of the World Wars within the Irish dramatic tradition two years before McGuinness did so in Observe the Sons of Ulster and long before Sebatian Barry wrote The Steward of Christendom. She was writing about race in an Irish context five years before Donal O’Kelly wrote Asylum! Asylum! (often described as the first Irish play to broach that topic). She blends music hall and dramatic experimentation in ways that are valued when identified in the works of O’Casey, Beckett and Behan, but which were criticised when she did them. And as implied earlier, she was trying in her work to do many of the things that Field Day are now routinely praised for having accomplished.



There has been some good critical work on Reid (though I’d like to see more of it). Maria Delgado’s introduction to her collected plays is an excellent and suggestive overview – and it helps that it’s written by someone who doesn’t come at the plays from the usual Irish perspectives. Reid also features in Imelda Foley’s (underrated) Girls in the Big Picture, an exploration of theatre by women from the north). And there are good articles about her work from Lisa Fitzpatrick, Joanna Luft, Carla McDonough, and Riana O’Dwyer (among a few others). She also features in books by Maria Kurdi and Tony Roche. Most of those articles focus on Tea in a China Cup (though Belle has been getting some attention in the last few years). But as I hope to have suggested above in this very brief outline, there is a lot more to be said about her work.


She is a loss, then, and I deeply sympathise with her family, friends and former colleagues, who I am sure must feel that loss very keenly. And I hope we can  take the time in the months and years ahead to remember her contribution to Irish theatre, and to appreciate it fully – for its humour, its accessibility, its idealism, its passion, and its determination to show that people can change.