Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Jez Butterworth's 'The Ferryman': the politics of the (Northern) Irish play

(Official poster for the West End transfer of Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman, at the Gielgud Theatre)

I didn't see The Ferryman during its first run, at the Royal Court Theatre; running from the end of April to the end of May, it famously sold out in one day. However, I was extremely lucky that my friend -- a culture critic and journalist -- took me to the press night of the West End transfer at the Gielgud Theatre.

'Press night' is a strange description for what took place, though; as the press had already (mostly ecstatically) reviewed the first production at the Royal Court, the 'Press night' actually consisted of the glitterati of British drama, tv, and showbiz: perhaps explaining the near-unanimous standing ovation at curtain call, and the chumminess of the audience with the actors on stage. But maybe what was also going on was something more complex and fraught -- something about what happens when an apparently 'Irish' play, but written by a non-Irish playwright, gets performed in the West End. I'm not sure if people quite felt able to respond honestly.

David Tennant was sitting next to me. I watched him, as slyly as possible, for evidence of his responses. A quick search tells me that Tennant's father, as I had thought, was a Church of Scotland Minister -- and also that Tennant is descended from Ulster Protestants, and that some of his descendants were members of the Orange Order. This is not to harp on about celebrity, but rather to highlight an example of what Sean O'Hagan pointed out recently in The Guardian: that some of the uncomfortable politics of The Ferryman -- an Irish play, written for a largely English (largely middle-class) audience -- have been glossed over by the press. Without giving too much away -- because The Ferryman is definitely worth going to see (it is the most gripping play I've seen in years, despite breaking my cardinal 'theatre rule' of lasting longer than the average film) -- the story takes place in 1981, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. However the focus is shifted to a large farmhouse in the countryside, with the head of the family trying to avoid his IRA past. Circumspect glances at my neighbour told me that in places the story was uncomfortable; that not all of the difficult topics could be glossed over by the play's humour (children swearing and drinking, a mad old auntie); and that he wasn't quite joining in with the general ribaldry of the occasion. Of course, there might have been many reasons for this; but it did make me wonder whether our general lack of understanding of, or interest in, Northern Ireland (as the recent election has shown) was writ large that evening -- our uncertainties and ignorance covered over with laughter and applause. It is not an accident that the easiest way to get a Pointless answer in Pointless is to mention a Northern Irish political party.

Just after going to see the play, I came across a very interesting blogpost by Patrick Lonergan entitled 'Is Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman an Irish play?' For one, as Lonergan points out, Butterworth isn't Irish; in fact, the main plot of the play is derived from the true story of the uncle of one of the actresses in the play, Laura Donnelly. Lonergan is at pains to point out that Butterworth's lack of Irish provenance shouldn't matter; however Sean O'Hagan is not as magnanimous, accusing the play of 'paddywhackery' and noting that 'Butterworth is an English writer grappling not just with the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and culture at a pivotal time in its history, but also with the full weight of the Irish dramatic tradition'. I'm not sure, however, that Butterworth is grappling hard enough with these things, and perhaps that's part of the problem. Critics have been at pains to point out that Butterworth's previous hit play, Jerusalem, dealt with English and Englishness; yet in a 2011 interview with The Guardian he rather backtracks on this, saying that what started off as a play about 'England and the English' ended up being more 'personal', and that though Jerusalem appears to be concerned with myth and history, actually his research for the play was far bittier and fragmented.

As an interesting point of comparison, both Lonergan and O'Hagan note the various Irish literary influences that Butterworth makes manifest throughout The Ferryman -- Yeats, Heaney, Friel and the playwright Tom Murphy in particular -- but on the other hand, this borrowing from a tradition through books rather than through living strikes them as somehow inauthentic. Can we access a culture just by reading around it? And yet, here's another problem. Why shouldn't Butterworth borrow from a tradition to write a play? Hasn't Western drama, from at least Shakespeare onwards, borrowed from other cultures to tell its stories? Both O'Hagan and Lonergan reference Brian Friel's play Wonderful Tennessee in their critiques of The Ferryman, but what both of their commentaries, and the play itself (perhaps by accident), kept returning me to was that famous line from Friel's Translations (1980):

Hugh: I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea.

Certainly, the broad brushstrokes in the depiction of Northern Irish Catholic characters in The Ferryman suggest a move away from the 'privacies' of subtle, tribal, communication that Friel describes in Translations: instead we are in a world where everyone tells stories, where the priest is compromised, where rebel songs are sung and where everybody drinks. But then again, are we so far from the depictions of Irish characters on-stage in 'London Irish' plays like Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane or even Conor McPherson's The Weir -- an Irish play, undoubtedly, but certainly capitalizing on the continual demand for Irish plays on the London stage? And yet, what we have in the case of The Ferryman is an endless circle, one encouraged by British and Irish alike. By writing about the Irish, the British are in danger of reviving the stereotypes that prevented the Irish from asserting their own cultural autonomy; by criticizing these same attempts, the Irish risk closing off their culture to outside influence, or wider cultural discussion. And this is without even mentioning the complex cultural and political paradigm of the North! I'm sure that some people in Ireland would think that I, as an academic working in Britain with an Irish mother, shouldn't even be commenting on such a difficult subject. But if I was to hazard a conclusion, it would be this: that had Butterworth written a more nuanced play, which delved more deeply into the social and cultural politics of the North, we would probably be asking fewer questions.

And that's without even discussing the accents!

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