Enjoying my week in Oxford and London, UK just before Christmas, I was happy to see the town in fancy dress, perhaps even more so than New York City. Especially in the West End, London shimmers with lights and sparkles with hope. I discovered why Bridget Jones bemoaned eating 40 or so mince pies (pastries that are like amuse bouches) a mouthful of deliciousness that you can’t just have one of. And we continually treated ourselves to the mulled wine (Oxford pubs serve this) and Christmas punch (in London proper) a heated wine with herbs and various liquors which takes off the chill while you are walking rain dampened London pavement.
The shows that happened to be in town when friends and I traveled to London were many. Musicals abound. There is Christmas fare for families. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is setting children’s faces ablaze with wonder. And Hamilton recently opened with lines going around and around. On his Instagram page, I noted that Lin Manuel Miranda was in town the same week we were, which probably contributed to the lines. Oh, to get a glimpse! Was there a lottery? Or cast entertainment beforehand? Knowing Lin, absolutely!
I have seen Hamilton 7 times, 5 times with the original cast in NYC, at the Public twice, and on Broadway. By happenstance I saw Lin Manuel Miranda workshop the production’s evolution at Vassar in 2012 when it was Hamilton Mixtape. Afterward, when I spoke to Leslie Odom Jr. about this at his guest singing appearance for the Morris Jumel Mansion autumn festival a few years later (he was inhabiting the role of Aaron Burr to accolades) he told me that he, too, was in the audience at Vassar. So was Ron Chernow, whom I recognized having read his exceptional biography of Hamilton in 2004. The three of us were “In the Room where it Happened” before Lin conceived of the fabulous song in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris Jumel Mansion a year later.
As Ron Chernow waited to speak to Lin Manuel, I boldly walked up to Ron and told him that he would sell a lot of books when the show went to Broadway. This was before the path of the show was determined and before some songs had been written, i.e. “The Room Where It Happened.” And indeed, the artistic director was adamant against even my adoring review of what I saw that day. All was “hush-hush!” Hamilton was waiting in the wings to evolve from Hamilton Mixtape. And what resulted, I do believe even stunned Lin Manuel Miranda, not taking away from his prodigious efforts and those of Alex Lacamore and the cast to make the show an unparalleled success, which some individual, older critics in the US begrudge. I don’t think they get the majesty and brilliance of Hamilton. I am a huge fan.
Now, it’s 2018. Ron Chernow continues to sell his biography of Hamilton to a London theatre crowd. And well they should purchase it; Miranda based most of the musical on Chernow’s writings. My prophecy is still unfolding. Surely, the book will continue to generate sales as the production tours globally and the film eventually screens when its last edits are made.
Friends and I chose tickets we could get at the last minute. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton tickets are pricey. So we decided upon The Ferryman, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Ink, and Barber Shop Chronicles which was at the National Theatre. As it turned out, our choices in two instances were spot on. Whether our exhaustion after hitting the ground running from Oxford to London finally caught up with us toward the latter part of the week, the last two productions proved problematic.
And so it went enjoyably with the initial two we saw, the first of which I will review in this post. I thought The Ferryman and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, were gobsmackingly good, and typical of what I anticipated to be superb London Theatre.
The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth (also wrote Jerusalem), exceptionally directed by Sam Mendes has been described as an epic in its themes about The Troubles. It is indeed epic in its breadth of sweeping emotion, its contrasts of dark and light, its conflicts that erupt with striking grandeur and spew violent rage and seething silence. Over swirling undercurrents and chasms of grief, the primary characters leap with defensive mechanisms to forget, to submerge raw feelings. They cling to and embrace any joys they can muster. As the arc of development rises toward the denouement, these joys become fewer and fewer.
Emotional drift is the backdrop that reverberates throughout the shock waves of Northern Ireland, County Armagh, 1981, Butterworth’s setting for The Ferryman. It is a land begrudged to British usurpers as vengeance peaks around every blade and stalk of greenery. For some who would farm, swords temporarily have been beaten into plowshares. Nevertheless, bellicosity and primal urges lay subsurface. They can be stirred up by those looking for redemption or death prompted by tribal disagreements laden with guilt.
Butterworth presents doom in the opening salvos of the play. Darkness clarifies. The sinister presence of the IRA leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and compromised priest Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) meet to discuss the conundrum. A body has been found in the bog. It is Seamus Carney, Quinn Carney’s brother. He had gone missing for a decade. Clearly, the man had been murdered, a bullet hole through the back of his head. His body had been consumed forever by the bog, until it wasn’t. On one macabre moonlit night, it had risen like a hulking ghost to haunt the murderers and exert its power through kin to secure a fitting revenge. Thus, with the atmosphere broiling of promised bloodshed, Father Horrigan must deliver the loathsome news to brother Quinn Carney (Will Houston) and wife Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene) that Seamus has been found in recognizable glory. The bog preserved him whole. It is an unfortunate reckoning for those who dispatched him like subalterns ensnared in colonialism’s sedate barbarisms.
This is the gruesomeness of Northern Ireland in 1981 when the struggles cry out for retribution to enforce Republican rights and autonomies. This was the time when Bobby Sands was in the midst of his 66-day hunger strike which was to end in his death, followed by additional hunger strikes which ended in 9 more deaths. It was the time when you were either a supporter or a traitor, or became invisible and melded with the land. Nevertheless, as the political forces ranged they determined one’s stance. Either you were complicit with those who risked their lives for freedom, or you were a masking coward, who stood back and watched in pretense, remaining “un-involved” while surreptitiously aiding the enemy.
These categorical role antitheses, polar opposite political postures are drawn on the surface of the play. However the political maps are secured, we understand that hearts side with hearts. As the story arc indicates, un-involvement is a brutal impossibility. Whether one acknowledges it or not, to live in Northern Ireland is to be immersed in the brawling conflict. There are two avenues and choices are made; the signs are omnipresent and most know where their neighbors stand.
We meet the protagonists Caitlin and Quinn who enter the empty Carney kitchen playfully and enact a sensual dance. This alluring fun between a man and woman is mysterious. They are archetypal lovers, revealed later to be Seamus’ brother and his wife, Caitlin Carney. Both have the most to loose and gain with the deliverance of Seamus Carney’s body. In their blindfolded dance (symbolic) we note an ineffable, unfathomable bond. Perhaps they share a longing for closure about Seamus’ death, a conjoined sadness, memories of happier times. Yet we intuit an affection worthy of partnership, only to discover their love possibly has never been consummated. Because of this perhaps such a physical union may be all the more desirable.
As the priest finds his way to the Carney household, the activity of life proceeds and they joyfully conclude the harvest season. We meet the Carney family and their friends who gather in the kitchen to rejoice that their labors have brought forth visible goodness. In the “horn of plenty” scenes we appreciate the raucous celebration as a natural and wholesome connection to the land. The crops have ripened to their greatest yield and have been plucked. The seasonal cycles are healthfully and refreshingly balanced. Friends and family join in harmony sharing the fruits of their labor in a homely, comforting scene.
The Carneys have birthed an enthusiastic brood of children ranging in ages from 5 to married with a child. Indeed, a 10 month old LIVE baby makes an appearance and stuns with radiant beauty and wide-eyed, well-behaved sweetness. And when each of the Carney children come down the stairs one after the other, again and again, the effect is humorous. We wonder at the couple’s faith in humankind to produce such a brood of strapping, gorgeous children. They must have great courage to raise them in these times which try Northern Irish souls, souls which feed the maw of the revolution and spread blood throughout every bog every town that can boast that their folks disappeared or were torn, battered and demised by civil strife.
When Quinn’s wife (initially we thought Caitlin was his wife) Mary comes down the steps, she is taciturn and immovable. Her demeanor is vacant, dim. We discover the reason she gives for this is that she is sickly, which causes her to be reclusive, a vanishing presence in the household. Perhaps she is recovering from her child-bearing years. Do we believe this? Her oldest daughter does not. Nevertheless, the remoteness runs to a darkness of the soul that she suppresses and later reveals in an aria beautifully parsed toward the play’s conclusion.
In a rollicking, joyful dinner, we note with amazement the family and in later kitchen scenes (there is one set, the sprawling Irish kitchen) they are joined by friends. There are the Carney siblings Michael, Honor, Mercy, Nunu, Shena, and JJ. There are the adults whose revelations of time and place run to deep oceans of sadness and self-harm caused by circumstances they cannot control because civil torments tear up the land and society. Farmer Dad Quinn has a secret past known to Muldoon. Young Aunt Caitlin runs the household while Mary (Catherine McCormack) remains alone harboring secrets and mucking around her bedroom. There is old Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) whose sense of history resides in myths. And there is the wistful, visionary prophetic Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who tells of the violent elfin wars that somehow parallel the present Troubles and forebode new dangers to be heaped upon their heads.
And for the historical reality, there is Aunt Patricia Carney who is emotionally haunted by the death of her brother in the Easter rebellion, a memory as alive as today and impossible to reconcile. Her bitterness drips with ironic humor continually; and as she relates she doesn’t know who Quinn’s wife is anymore; indeed, it could be Caitlin. We are grateful for her clear, grounded presence though the children find her discussion of the injustice of The Troubles exasperating. They have not yet gathered to their hearts the violence that seethes throughout their culture and society.
Finally, there is Quinn’s and Mary’s nephew Oisin, Caitlin’s son, a young and beautiful teenager orphaned of his father. Seamus the missing has blown an emotional hole through his and his mother’s hearts. These are bleeding wounds that Quinn attempts to staunch by caring for them as his own, while Mary suffers in silence upstairs. Nevertheless, with the missing, there is no finality. Daily the questions of Seamus Carney’s whereabouts and what happened to him float like unspoken filaments in their memories. These they cover over with hackneyed or jovial conversation or deeper poetic and mythic references that proclaim truths hidden beneath the surface of homely interaction.
For example during the scene of motley gathering, there is discussion of the ferryman who spans life and death. He is the arbiter and controller of dead souls who seek peace, souls banned from passage on his boat for they have not been properly buried. Such souls wander on the shores of the river unable to cross to the land of the dead. Wanderers howl in pain seeking an implacable rest never given to them. This is the torment of the spirit’s soul, the torment of the family’s souls for their missing loved ones. Such is Seamus Carney’s torment.
Reference to Seamus’ disappearance brings a pall to the kitchen conversations. We understand that Seamus and the family cannot have peace until he is properly found and buried. The irony is we know the conclusion of a chapter of savagery is coming to its finality. However, we watch as the family still hovers in yearning in darkness and light. What will happen after Seamus is finally buried in his proper resting place? Will revenge be sought?
The undercurrents remain hidden as the family raucously cheer on their successful efforts, dance, drink, tell stories and more in various celebratory scenes. The churning lives and friendly gatherings which include the Cocorans, and Tom Kettle (Ivan Kaye is outstanding as the slow-witted Englishman orphaned as a child, raised by an Irish family) intimate no abysses of darkness. For in this brilliance of light and life, all is well. But the news must come when it comes.
The play fuels the darkness soon enough as Butterworth slowly unravels the mysteries surrounding Seamus’ death, Quinn’s secrets, Mary’s vanishing presence and Caitlin’s fondness for Quinn with no hoped for closure. With immediate, powerful truth leveled by the conclusion, we see what has been hidden and how that information gives rise to manifesting the latent nature of Quinn Carney.
There is a supreme irony that the climactic scene is one all have been waiting for when Muldoon shows up and revels in the pure clarity of his justified brutality years before. It is at this key revelation that tragedy occurs. Innocents misled by the tide of times are swept up by their inability to make reasoned choices. What was thought to bring closure evolves into additional loss and retribution. At a pivotal moment Quinn Carney seeks the depths of his own soul and unleashes the ancient primal, tribal ethic which demands an “eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.” Forgiveness becomes an impossibility of bloodlines, the verbal domicile of masking priests and reverends, the untoward retreat of widows and old Aunts. Forgiveness is not the portion of fighting men forced to take sides.
Revenge feeds off itself. With the series of acts which began before Seamus Carney’s murder and will continue beyond the Peace Agreement which occurs years’ later, Butterworth’s characters sculpt a monument to destruction with their own miry human clay. Washed in Irish/English blood, it is a memorial to intolerance, injustice and economic oppression which can never be answered by bloodshed that stains the land during The Troubles or stains any land soaked with the entrails of civil strife.
Butterworth’s play shepherded by the able sensibility of Mendes and the emotionally solid cast portrayals illuminates the poignance and helplessness of a family in duress. We watch stunned at this family that measures out their lives’ suffering through everpresent loss and the aftermath of sectarian violence which spreads chaos and injustice without surcease. The production is a must-see for the acting, the staging and set design (how are 20 people able to move onstage with fluidity?), and the wrangling of an absolutely adorable goose and rabbits which Tom Kettle brings.
The themes leave one considering. Not only must we bare up each other’s losses, but we must attempt to understand each other’s rooted sorrows. This in order to prepare for a day of reckoning which comes for everyone. For the protagonists of The Ferryman, their day of reckoning comes after they have been lulled to believe they’ve reconciled grief, which they learn they haven’t. The reckoning descends swiftly and starkly and we are shocked by our own wrong assumptions because of our dim-wittedness to understand the stakes. As a fitting addendum to further shift our unsettled emotions, Aunt Maggie Carney Far Away provides the last line of the play, symbolic, searing, foreboding.
If you are in London, this is one to see. It runs until 19 May 2018 at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, Soho, London W1D 6AR. You may purchase tickets here.