Fenian Ghosts Wait In The Wings

Jez Butterworth pulls off a first at the Royal Court — a play that doesn’t blame Mrs Thatcher for everything

Anne McElvoy

Tense territory: “The Ferryman” transfers to the West End from June 20 (©Johan Persson)

Jez Butterworth’s plays are muscular affairs. Irreverence, energy and a deft ear for the language of what the Prime Minister might call the Not Just About Managing folk of rural England in Jerusalem stole hearts, minds and awards by the bucketload. Confidence is his hallmark and now Butterworth has taken the ultimate risk for an English playwright — writing a drama about Northern Ireland during the Maze protests of the early 1980s. The Ferryman at the Royal Court (transferring to the Gielgud from June 20), is a boisterous parade of the Carney family, gathered on Quinn Carney’s farm with a batch of roistering cousins for the harvest. It is 1981 and here are ghosts, of the Ibsen kind, in the wings — of recently-dead hunger strikers, the Troubles and the ghosts of ghosts, reaching back to 1916. Seamus Carney has disappeared for ten years, only to re-emerge buried in a bog with a bullet hole in his skull. The find is mighty inconvenient for Malone (Turlough Convery), the quietly menacing Derry IRA boss who is riding a wave of international pro-Republican sentiment in the wake of Bobby Sands’s death. He could do without inconvenient evidence of brutal IRA punishments inflicted on its own and sets out to intimidate Seamus’s brother Quinn (Paddy Considine) to keep schtum. 

Considine shines as an unquiet, physically charged presence, carrying a decade of anger, grief and guilt about the death of his brother and an ongoing affair with Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), his widow. “Vanished,” says one of the characters, “now there’s an interesting word.” One way or another, vanishings keep happening. Aunt Maggie Faraway (Brid Brennan) is a senile seer who blurts out uncomfortable truths. Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) is chain-smoking, octengenarian Republican fanatic, harbouring a girlhood crush on the heroes of the 1916 uprising. She carries around a radio, to hear Margaret Thatcher denounce the IRA as criminals, the more to enjoy her seething outrage. “Sure, I think it’s what keeps her going,” jokes Quinn. But Aunt Pat can bite.

Her steel-rimmed specs gleam with menace under the stage lights as she tells sly stories that point to the covert ménage a trois of Quinn, his neglected wife Mary, and Caitlin. For Pat, the only betrayal that matters is that of Irish nationalism: “Some round here are a bit confused. Day by day, they’re forgetting themselves. Who they are. What they are.” When the IRA henchman turns up to offer “condolences” (rarely has the word been used so effectively to instil a sense of menace), the family’s body language show that tots and grown-ups alike see an intruder for the danger he is. Pat stalks over to shake his hand and give a speech about the IRA’s bravery.

In this barbed-wire territory, Butterworth pulls off a first at the reliably leftie Royal Court — a play that features Margaret Thatcher on the sidelines, without blaming everything on her. Lured into the chaotic warmth of the Carney family, we are confronted by the way the the IRA infiltrated lives, ruling its own by the threat of violence, recrimination or blackmail, just as readily as it attacked British rule. We hear speeches from the youthful cousin recruit about “justice” channelling Sands’s final message that he “hungered only for justice”. The pathos is undercut with the recognition that justice without mercy leads to Robespierre, not redemption. 

Flaws? There are a flock of them. We have Greek references, a Mice and Men theme, banshees, bogmen and too many contrivances. Those with an ear for dialect will wonder why, in a play set in the North, the accents are more educated Eire than Derry (watching it blindfold, you might assume that the Troubles occurred in southern Dublin). But it is a broad and bold handling of events which many want to forget. Sam Mendes’s direction captures the cheeky spirit of Butterworth’s craft. Flouting the rule about not working with children or animals, we get Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), a sweet-natured simpleton Englishman, strolling on with a live goose (a feathered metaphor of trouble ahead). Tom “collects rainbows” and proffers bunnies as gifts, at one point to Malone, just after he has issued a devastating coded threat. The silence that follows is tense and comical in equal measure. “I can see now it’s not the right moment,” muses Tom.

In a yarn that features adultery, terrorism, revenge and inter-generational strife with guns under beds and everyone from the kiddies to the ancients nipping at Bushmills, anyone might kill just about anyone else by accident or design. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it is satisfyingly unexpected and fierce. Echoes of Charon, boatman of the River Styx, are never far away. 

Russian-language theatre is one of those pop-ups in the London stage calendar which look like a brief offer to lure the capital’s well- (and often high-) heeled Russian ladies. But Russia’s dramatic exports are attracting wider audiences. The Vakhtangov Theatre brought us a fine (non-operatic) Eugene Onegin. Last month, Moscow’s Sovremennik plucked the heartstrings of the motherland’s exiles with a sturdy Three Sisters, Erich Remarque’s Three Comrades, and a Broadway warhorse, One for the Seesaw, at the Piccadilly Theatre.

The Sovremennik is a bit like the Berliner Ensemble — a theatre forged from a fascinating history. It was set up just before Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and bravely led the Moscow theatre’s critique of the Stalin era with Into The Whirlwind, an adaptation of Evgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of the impact of repression on a family. That reputation for forthright engagement with power and its consequences lasted through the Glasnost years. Nowadays, it’s a tamer affair.

On the stage, Sovremennik’s proficiency remains impressive. Three Sisters was given the full Stanislavsky treatment. Its 83-year-old artistic director Galina Volchek is a devotee of the Method, so we could forget the habit of playing Chekhov as wry and restrained. Sobbing was loud, humour as broad as the Volga, and the unsatisfied sexual longing of Masha and Vernishin channelled into twitches and clumsy embraces. The whole experience felt different from a restrained British production, which I rather like. Russians in the audience clearly relished the never-undersold levels of pathos, whooping and applauding after key scenes.

Overall, the commitment to fully inhabiting the characters’ psychology tipped into acting that was, by contemporary standards, a bit hammy.  And on the impact of Putin and Russia today, Sovremennik is a tame affair, ceding the the laurels for bravery to the Belarus Free Theatre and unofficial underground productions. Samizdat is back on the scene. Pity the land that needs heroes.

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