To say that Laura Donnelly, one of the stars of The Ferryman, has a personal connection to the play is an understatement. Her family story inspired it.
It was while she was in Jez Butterworth’s previous play The River that Donnelly told him about her uncle. He went missing in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Butterworth had already started preliminary work on a play set at harvest time and found Donnelly’s story so intriguing that he made it the basis of the story.
How did she feel when she first read the script? “I was blown away by how accurate the language and the rhythms were, by its knowledge of the people. And all from an English playwright. I couldn’t believe how well he had managed to get to know Northern Ireland.”
The Ferryman is largely set on a farm in County Armagh, 1981. Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is overseeing a rowdy extended family as they prepare to celebrate the harvest. But ghosts are gathering, primarily in the shape of Carney’s brother Seamus, a former IRA member who was missing for 10 years and whose body has recently been discovered.
The story parallels Donnelly’s own tale. Her maternal uncle Eugene went missing in 1981. He was found in a bog across the Irish border in 1984. “I’ve never had to do less research for a play than this one,” says Donnelly. “I already felt I knew so much about that world, and the effects of having that happen to a family.”
She found revisiting the story a cathartic process. “It surprised me to realise that I hadn’t ever really had a proper conversation with my mother about her brother. And that really emphasised an important point of the play: that you have to talk about difficult things if you’re going to continue to live in an open and honest way.”
Her character in The Ferryman, Caitlin, is Seamus’s widow. She’s a bright presence in a play brimming with richly drawn characters. But she struggles with long-held demons. Donnelly describes her as “a mix of opposites. She keeps the cogs of the family turning, while also being quite a mess. She stays up all night. She drinks too much. And she has secrets that are just under the surface waiting to come out.”
Donnelly’s chemistry with Considine, who gives a remarkable performance in his first professional stage role, is key to the production’s success. How was it achieved? “Paddy and I both relate so personally to the characters that we didn’t have to stretch too far to work out who these people are. Paddy was so open and generous with his time and his honesty that it just seemed like a very natural process. It never felt like hard work.”
Their director, Sam Mendes, choreographs the action – which features live rabbits, a goose and over 20 characters spanning three generations – with uncanny precision. Donnelly compares the performance to playing in an orchestra. “I noticed from the first time I auditioned for The River that Jez’s writing has a very musical quality. As a result, you notice if there’s a bum note. We have to be very conscious of what everyone else is doing. It’s a lesson in listening.”
Like Butterworth’s Jerusalem before it, The Ferryman has a strongly spiritual element. As an audience member you’re struck by a palpable sense of community. We feel part of the Carney family and have a stake in their story. Speaking to Donnelly, it is clear where this comes from: the actors are living their characters.
When Donnelly’s mother first saw the play, it was a big moment. “She was incredibly moved by it. She found it difficult, as I expected her to. Anyone who lived through that time in Northern Ireland would. But overall she was very, very pleased to have something like this discussed in front of such a wide audience. It never got talked about for such a long time. For it to be brought forward in such a public way was very gratifying for her.”
With the Northern Ireland peace process back in the headlines, The Ferryman – which has rightly been labelled the play of the year – has an unexpected, shuddering topicality. As well as being an astonishing tale of rural family life during The Troubles, it is a stark warning from history. The events it depicts, which lay buried for so many years, must never be repeated.