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Sam Mendes’s The Ferryman balances rollicking family fun with a study of extremism

The Olivier-winning play from Jez Butterworth juggles 21 actors, a baby, and a goose — with a dark strain of Irish nationalism.

Johan Persson courtesy of Sonia Friedman Productions

The first thing you’ll notice about Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman, once you get past the hype — an Olivier Award-winning Best New Play, staged by celebrity director Sam Mendes, making its Broadway bow with nearly the entire original British cast intact — is just how big that cast is.

With 21 actors, a baby, a bunny, and a goose, The Ferryman sports the kind of ensemble typically reserved for musicals. But it actually feels closer to an opera. It’s as hefty as an opera; its themes are as large and looming, its poetry as rich. Yet where a dramatic opera traditionally announces itself with bombast, The Ferryman — about a family living under the cyclical sway of political violence in Northern Ireland — is infused throughout with a deliberate lightness, a joyous humanism that attempts to counterbalance all the weight it’s carrying: the weight of history, of life under oppression, of personal and communal secrets.

The play’s large ensemble, then, isn’t a gimmick, but rather a necessary device for Butterworth to explore the complexity of everyday, familiar (and familial) extremism working on a community. He uses his characters to diagram the interplay between the personal and the political in the lives of one very large family — loving and fun, and frequently hilarious, but torn by their warring allegiances to home and country.

The Ferryman unfolds over 24 cataclysmic hours in the life of a family with deep ties to the IRA

The threat of IRA violence hangs over the play.

Set in rural County Armagh in 1981, the play unfolds against the backdrop of the Troubles, specifically the year-long Irish prison hunger strikes that ultimately claimed the lives of 10 IRA members. The events of the play are separated from the nationalist conflict — physically, that is.

At the bustling Carney farm, Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) has successfully put his past as a feared member of the IRA behind him. But the tensions between the IRA and the British government are anything but a distant memory for his community, and when his brother’s body is discovered, a decade after his mysterious disappearance, it catalyzes a long-building confrontation between the whole family about its connection to the violence of the past and the present.

Central to the drama is Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), Quinn’s widowed sister-in-law who’s been living with Quinn’s family since his brother’s disappearance, along with her troubled teenage son, Oisin (Rob Malone). The unspoken love between Quinn and Caitlin is an unacknowledged secret throughout the household — weaponized by their Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy in a fierce performance) and borne passively by Quinn’s wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly). It’s also exploited by the ruthless IRA faction that Quinn once belonged to, now suspected of killing his brother in retaliation for Quinn’s decision to leave and raise his family instead.

But the past isn’t just past. The family members share personal and cultural history, but their varying relationships to that history create charged, difficult dynamics. Aunt Pat is an IRA loyalist who eulogizes the lost freedom fighters; her sister Maggie is largely catatonic, trapped in her mind by terrifying childhood memories of the IRA as a militarized throng.

When the Carneys’ young cousin Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney, with impressive command in a difficult role) drops in for a visit, his IRA support further antagonizes a divided family. “This is not history,” he remarks at one point while arguing the nationalist cause. “This is happening now.” Over the course of the play, the ties that bind Quinn’s family — to each other and to their country’s violent politics — wind tighter and tighter around their necks.

The resulting climax is a bit awkward and forced — Butterworth’s writing can often feel heavy-handed, and here he falls just short of managing both pathos and subtlety. But that flaw doesn’t detract from the many merits of this play, which is frequently beautiful, hilarious, and poignant all in the same breath.

The Ferryman succeeds on the strength of its superb ensemble and rich, sensitive writing — and on its timeliness

Johan Persson courtesy of Sonia Friedman Productions

Respected character actor Considine (Hot Fuzz), making his stage debut, isn’t quite the deep, still water necessary to pull off the huge emotional shifts Quinn undergoes during the course of the play. Some of this is due to the writing, which puts Quinn at the center of a raucous, tumultuous family but often seems to forget about him.

Still, Butterworth can be forgiven for devoting as much time as he does to the rest of the ensemble, because the rest of the ensemble is just so good. The Ferryman clocks in at around three hours, and I easily would have sat for four, so rich are its characters and so engaging are its performances.

Like the rest of the ensemble, the numerous kids onstage have been well cast; they’re lively and natural rather than distracting, and they frequently deliver the biggest laughs of the evening. (Shoutout to the goose as well, which stole the show in its one appearance, as well as the cadre of babies lined up to burble at us every night.)

Mendes’s staging is subtle but effective, enhancing the play’s deceptive lightness. And he’s as brilliant as ever at using staging alone to reveal harrowing truths about characters, often through direction as simple as where they’re standing in relation to one another. The actors frequently convey plot and character revelations in looks and silences rather than words.

When they do talk, however, they’re often deeply poetic. Butterworth is probably best known for his work as a screenwriter for films like Spectre and Edge of Tomorrow. As a playwright, however, he has long been celebrated for his effusive, often self-consciously literary way with language both highbrow and lowbrow. He likes to frame the small-scale events of his plays as great epics; in his most successful play, 2009’s Jerusalem, and again in Ferryman, he pairs distinct class and regional consciousness with references to mythology and great works of poetry and literature. This works beautifully in moments when characters are united through music and shared stories, and when summoning the past and the nationalist tradition that fuels their loyalty to the IRA.

Jerusalem brilliantly interrogated Mark Rylance’s dissolute main character to argue that he was, perhaps, not a brutish chav but rather one of the last great English renegades, from a long and epic tradition.

In Ferryman, though, the interplay of history, lore, and contemporary lives isn’t redemptive but troubling. At a moment when we are increasingly polarized into walled-off communities, both geographically and ideologically, The Ferryman asks if we can remember and honor the lost and the marginalized without losing ourselves to violence. Referencing the Catholic belief that unburied souls can’t enter heaven, the play casts the ghosts of national Irish heroes — including heroes who are dying at that very moment — as walking among the living, still restless and agitating for change.

The Ferryman wonders whether violent revolution in pursuit of restorative justice is inevitable when the souls of the dead cannot rest. And though the violence that ultimately descends upon the Carney house, as it has threatened to do from the play’s opening moments, is rendered as a directionless howl, that howl is a thrilling cry. It demands an answer, for better or for worse.

The Ferryman is currently playing on Broadway.