Reviews of The Ferryman, directed by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes, have been routinely decorated with five stars and performances are met nightly with standing ovations.
Even more of a feat is the fact that the Gielgud Theatre rings with laughter throughout Jez Butterworth’s play, set in farm kitchen in Northern Ireland in 1981.
Butterworth and Mendes manage to inject humour and charm into a pitiless situation - that of a wife unable to mourn her vanished husband; that of a family, the Carneys, unable to move on.
In addition, the whole ensemble comprises of 37 performers, including 17 main adults, 12 children on rota and one baby.
Sam Mendes, despite often being referred to as the James Bond director, has a heavy theatre background and was artistic director at the Donmar back in the 1990s. We asked him about his latest theatrical triumph - bringing The Ferryman to the stage.
Of all the plays in all the world, why The Ferryman?
Sam Mendes: Jez and I had worked on another play together. He mentioned he was writing this other play, inspired by events in Laura Donnelly’s life [who originated the role of Caitlin Carney]. I read it on the train and couldn’t put it down. I was disappointed that my train arrived before I’d finished it. [I] finished it in the back of a cab and then got back on the train that night and read it all over again. I called him up and said, ‘It’s an amazing play, it’s a staggering piece of work’. So it chose me really.
It seems to me that Jez has a keen sense of what we’re looking for, whose reaction we’re looking for in the next moment. He suggests ‘at this point we need to know this person’s reaction’ and you effortlessly bring them on stage.
SM: Well I can only do it if the writing is good in the first place and the writing in this is not only good, it’s exceptional. Extraordinary in many ways because it’s very unusual that you bring 22 people on stage and you’re interested in all of them, even the children. The delicacy and detail in the writing, the sense in which he has fully imagined each of their worlds and you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg for each of them is extraordinary.
This is a profoundly mature play and there is a mystery in the centre of it, as there is in all of his plays actually. A sense that there is something fascinating just beyond the boundaries of the play.
This play seems to incorporate and draw unconsciously upon a handful of the major Irish playwrights - Boucicault, Synge, O’Casey - but it doesn’t feel in any way owing, in no way derivative.
SM: I think Jez (Butterworth) had been influenced by that tradition, but that the heart of it is deeply personal and that means it never feels like somebody writing their influences.
He has seen the politics of the play, the idea of the play, the idea of delayed grief, of someone being disappeared. He was very struck by the idea that this boy could disappear at 17 and be found and given a burial when he would have been 60. And his 17-year-old friends would be sitting in the front row of that funeral service as 60-year-old men, grieving that boy.
It is a play about loss and how you deal with that?
SM: But in saying that, you diminish it. All of life is there. You could say the centre of this play is shame, nothing to do with loss. You could say the centre of the play is Maggie, or Quinn. I think you could say that it is about love. I think you are in the presence of a play that is bigger than we can put our arms around and that happens very rarely.
One of the things I would say about this play is that it will outlast all of us. I’m not a big fan of the phrase ‘masterpiece’ as I always think that I don’t know what it means. I think you can only define it by, ‘Is this going to outlive us all?’ And, I think, unquestionably, yes it will outlive us all. This is something that will have something to say to future generations and I think we’ll see productions of it in which the centre appears to be somewhere quite different.
I’ve always thought a masterpiece is something that changes the way you see life. And in a sense the play fulfils that definition. What it also acknowledges is that each one of us brings something different to the auditorium and therefore it will touch us all in different ways but it will also touch us as a group.
SM: That’s very well expressed. I think everyone sees something different in the play.
The Ferryman is booking until 6 January at London’s Gielgud Theatre. £12 day
seats are available for all performances - get more information and book tickets now.