Jez Butterworth tapped into England’s green and pleasant land in “Jerusalem,” summoning ancient feet and pagan spirits to the stage. “The Ferryman,” his first major play since that mega-hit, dredges the depths of Northern Ireland’s bogs and digs up a lot of old bones along the way. A ripping thriller in a big family home, stuffed with eccentricity and black comedy, it swells into an expansive examination of Unionist history, politics and identity, as tied up with the IRA. At the center of Sam Mendes’ exquisite staging, Paddy Considine (“Tyrannosaur”) puts in a phenomenal performance as a father fighting against his past.
A bloated, blackened body has bubbled up from the bog, hands and feet bound together and identifiable only by dental records, but otherwise perfectly preserved; pickled by peat. His wallet, curiously, remains intact; photos of his wife and son still tucked inside. This was Seamus Carney, an IRA man who vanished in 1971, ten years ago, and rumored to be an informer.
A lot of old history resurfaces with him. A shady figure in a leather jacket, Mr. Muldoon, IRA to his core, wants info on the man’s brother, Quinn Carney (Considine) — now a happy family man, farming low-grade cereals for animal feed overseas.
We find him surrounded by his seven kids, rallying his troops for the annual harvest, in a ram-packed rural farmhouse. A never-ending stream of children, teenagers, women and grandparents come downstairs every morning, as Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) rustles up bacon sandwiches. It’s a clamorous scene, teeming with life: Sheena singing Bowie at her baby sister, JJ readying himself for the fields, kids tearing around at play. Old Uncle Pat (Des McAleer) slips into old stories, passing on family lore to “the wee ‘uns” at his feet, while his sour wife, Auntie Pat (Dearbhla Molloy), plugs herself into the radio and waits for a Margaret Thatcher speech on the hunger strikers. In the corner, in a wheelchair, Aunt Maggie “Faraway,” smiles vacantly into space.
The politics of the day — the division that Northern Ireland tends to stand for onstage — quickly gets buried beneath everyday issues and interruptions. Quinn’s sickly wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) floats downstairs in her night-gown; their English neighbor Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson), a big gentle soul with learning difficulties, stops by with windfall apples. In Belfast, Bobby Sands has been buried and a tenth striker has just died. But the Corcoran boys are coming for a harvest feast and the fattened goose has escaped. Butterworth matches the distraction formally: a host of animals and infants upstage the main action.
It’s a tumbling and tumultuous play, one that swerves off into storytelling, song and dance, and debate, without taking its eye off the need for suspense. It’s a thriller that bursts the bounds of its genre, but never forgets what makes the form tick. Butterworth loads his traps patiently, then bides his time. From the very start, he sets up an almighty showdown between two old IRA rivals, then makes us wait a full three hours for fruition, setting other sub-plots — secret loves and silent resentments — to spring in the interim. The result is the most precarious peace: a rural idyll, a happy family, a good man, all primed to come crashing down any second. The tension is as electric as it is symbolic, and Butterworth makes clear that violence lurks, unspoken, beneath the surface of Northern Irish society and, indeed, deep within every individual, latent but waiting to be awoken. There’s no getting away — no matter how hard Quinn Carney tries. History resurfaces: “A North wind blows up the bodies.” Considine drops his voice, tenses up, and lets us glimpse the hardened fighter beneath the mellow farmer’s exterior.
Butterworth’s focus is old, extant enmity: the way wars can roll on in perpetuity until they simply become the norm. Irish Republicans have been fighting for 400 years and “The Ferryman” shows how identity can become defined by age-old animosity. A play stuffed with folk songs and stories, where long memories mutate into myths, it demonstrates the way rancor trickles down through the generations, so that unruly young men take up their forefathers’ fight. It is, among plenty else, an exacting look at the process of radicalization. Indeed, one could argue “The Ferryman” to be the best Iraq play in years.
But the play is both too specific for that and too wide-ranging. It’s a prime example of thinking through theater, as Butterworth embodies ideas and makes images felt, rubs stories off against each other and stirs motifs into the mix. From missed-out motherhood to lost love, the play courses with yearned-for connections that remain agonizingly incomplete. But it is, above all, entirely entertaining. Mendes marshals the action beautifully around Rob Howell’s atmospheric set, a well-lived-in home, and his cast breathe vivid life into Butterworth’s eccentrics. Molloy shows the kernel of grief, 66 years on, beneath Auntie Pat’s bitterness, and Brennan injects a shade of the supernatural as the watery-eyed oracle Auntie May Faraway. Hodgkinson’s superb as Tom Kettle, a kindly, but inept English romantic, hopelessly in love with Donnelly’s long-suffering Caitlin. All of them, in their own way, are the products of Northern Ireland, rooted to the land that forged them.