By Ben Brantley
No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. That’s where Jez Butterworth’s thrilling new play “The Ferryman” opened on Sunday night, with a generosity of substance and spirit rarely seen on the stage anymore.
There is, for the record, a whopping celebratory meal at the center of this endlessly vibrant work, directed with sweeping passion and meticulous care by Sam Mendes. Its main course is a goose, which has figured as a living creature in earlier scenes, and the repast appears to be more than enough to feed the 17 revelers gathered at an overladen table in rural Northern Ireland in 1981.
But the real sustenance provided here comes from the sheer abundance within a work that picked up most of the awards on offer during its London run last year. This is theater as charged and cluttered and expansive as life itself. And the three and a quarter hours and 21 speaking parts required to tell its story — which is at once a shivery suspenser, a hearthside family portrait, a political tragedy and a journey across mythic seas — barely seem long enough to contain all it has to give us.
The last time a new drama with this breadth of scope and ambition appeared on Broadway was seven years ago. That was Mr. Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” in which a small-time, middle-aged country drug dealer (played by a monumental Mark Rylance) became a majestic emblem of an ancient, heroic England.
With “The Ferryman,” Mr. Butterworth is again assessing the chokehold of a nation’s past on its present. But now it is Northern Ireland at the height of the politically fraught period known as the Troubles. (We hear radio reports of the dying Irish Republican hunger strikers in the Maze prison.) And he mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance.
If this sounds forbidding, rest assured that “The Ferryman,” which stars the magnetic Paddy Considine as the head of a ginormous family, never feels remotely polemical. Even more than “Jerusalem,” it revels in the addictive power of artfully unfolded narratives. And I mean all kinds of narratives: classical epics and homey fairy tales, barroom ballads and chronicles of hopeless love, multigenerational family sagas and ghost stories with a body count.
Most of the action may be confined to a room in a farmhouse, which — as rendered in Rob Howell’s splendid set, with eloquent lighting (Peter Mumford) and sound (Nick Powell) — exhales an air of hard-won comfort under siege. Yet, like a James Joyce short story in which the everyday and the eternal live cheek by jowl, “The Ferryman” seems to sprawl over an entire, divided country.
We are specifically in the overflowing home of Quinn Carney (Mr. Considine, in a superb, anchoring performance), whose domain improbably accommodates his seven children (ages 9 months to 16), his invalid wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and his misanthropic, staunchly Irish republican aunt and Virgil-quoting uncle, both of whom are called Pat (pricelessly portrayed by Dearbhla Molloy and Mark Lambert).
Living under the same roof are his sister-in-law, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly, in a heart-stopping performance that won her the Olivier Award), and her understandably broody adolescent son, Oisin (Rob Malone). Then there’s Quinn’s overgrown, childlike (and English-born) handyman, Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards). And because it is harvest day, their ranks are swelled by three young strapping male relatives, the Corcoran boys.
But wait! I haven’t mentioned the unwelcome visitors who show up at nightfall, casting dark shadows on the glowing Carney homestead: a craven priest, Father Horrigan (Charles Dale), and the courtly, sinister Irish republican kingpin Mr. Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and his henchmen (Dean Ashton and Glenn Speers), whom we have already met in the play’s ominous prologue, set in a graffiti-sprayed back alley in the nearby city of Derry.
As unlikely as it seems, you’ll have no trouble keeping these characters apart. Each bristles with vivid specificity, even those in nonspeaking parts, like the infant Bobby, a feral rabbit and the aforementioned goose. Mr. Butterworth has taken pains to define every one of them, and the cast repays him with performances that blaze unconditionally in the moment.
Of equal importance, this being a play about the Irish, are the living dead, the absent souls who exist not only as scrupulously maintained memories but as catalysts in an increasingly eventful plot. Among them are the late family patriarch, whose black-and-white portrait looms as a benediction and a curse, and his romantically remembered brother, who was killed by British troops during the Easter Rising in Dublin of 1916.
But of most immediate importance is Caitlin’s missing husband, Seamus, whose eerily well-preserved, 10-years-dead body is discovered in a bog shortly before the play begins. The news will shatter the cozy, vigilantly guarded order of the Carney household and drag shadowy deceptions into the harsh light.
This process is achieved through a propulsive plot that never stops churning forward even as it keeps looking backward, conjuring a cyclical nightmare of history from which no one escapes. Yet the story also embraces a multitude of exuberantly full individual scenes, of a number and richness rarely seen outside of Shakespeare.
Mr. Mendes, who has become world famous as the director of James Bond blockbusters (and brilliantly staged the New York-bound “The Lehman Trilogy”), here endows these vignettes with a master craftsman’s artisanal detail. There is, for instance, that astonishing scene that introduces us to Quinn and Caitlin, alone in the early hours of the harvest day, dancing to “Street Fighting Man” with such exhilarated abandon that a lampshade catches fire.
Or the very different arias of histories ancient and living delivered by Uncle and Aunt Pat. Or any of the moments when the usually senescent Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) swerves into focus, with visions of those baleful spirits, the banshees, that feel all too real.
I can’t shake the memory of the cinematic image that concludes the first act, in which a solemn young man creeps in from the shadows to stare at the suspended carcass of a slaughtered goose, as if in mortal kinship. And I must mention the five excellent young actors — Fra Fee, Niall Wright, Tom Glynn-Carney, Conor MacNeill and Michael Quinton McArthur — who bring such force to a fraternal drinking session that it turns into an anatomy of a civil war.
And yes, there is indeed one of those rousing, classically Irish scenes of celebratory song and dance. It occurs amid the great harvest dinner, and it has three distinct phases.
It begins with sprightly Celtic fiddle music and show-off knees-up and step-dancing moves. Then the music is changed, brusquely, to contemporary rock (“Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones), and the mood turns frantically, dangerously sensual. Finally, there is an a cappella performance of the Irish song of rebellion “A Row in the Town,” and it is performed with an anger that wakens the senses as it freezes the blood.
The warring feelings embodied by these three, very different numbers are, you realize, all genetically encoded in every one of the characters here. By the end of this magnificent drama, Mr. Butterworth has connected the contradictions with a skill that takes the breath away.
IF YOU WANT TO SIGN UP FOR “THE FERRYMAN”, MAIL A CHECK FOR $185 TO “BROADWAY WITH CAROL” 640 E. SPRINGFIELD RD, SPRINGFIELD, PA 19064. IF YOU PREFER USING A CREDIT CARD, JUST CLICK ON THE PAYPAL LINK BELOW. HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE TO PAY, I’LL NEED YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS, CELL PHONE NUMBER AND WHO YOU ARE SITTING WITH!