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Tense territory: “The Ferryman” transfers to the West End from June 20 (©Johan Persson)

Jez Butterworth’s plays are muscular affairs. Irreverence, energy and a deft ear for the language of what the Prime Minister might call the Not Just About Managing folk of rural England in Jerusalem stole hearts, minds and awards by the bucketload. Confidence is his hallmark and now Butterworth has taken the ultimate risk for an English playwright — writing a drama about Northern Ireland during the Maze protests of the early 1980s. The Ferryman at the Royal Court (transferring to the Gielgud from June 20), is a boisterous parade of the Carney family, gathered on Quinn Carney’s farm with a batch of roistering cousins for the harvest. It is 1981 and here are ghosts, of the Ibsen kind, in the wings — of recently-dead hunger strikers, the Troubles and the ghosts of ghosts, reaching back to 1916. Seamus Carney has disappeared for ten years, only to re-emerge buried in a bog with a bullet hole in his skull. The find is mighty inconvenient for Malone (Turlough Convery), the quietly menacing Derry IRA boss who is riding a wave of international pro-Republican sentiment in the wake of Bobby Sands’s death. He could do without inconvenient evidence of brutal IRA punishments inflicted on its own and sets out to intimidate Seamus’s brother Quinn (Paddy Considine) to keep schtum. 

Considine shines as an unquiet, physically charged presence, carrying a decade of anger, grief and guilt about the death of his brother and an ongoing affair with Caitlin (Laura Donnelly), his widow. “Vanished,” says one of the characters, “now there’s an interesting word.” One way or another, vanishings keep happening. Aunt Maggie Faraway (Brid Brennan) is a senile seer who blurts out uncomfortable truths. Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy) is chain-smoking, octengenarian Republican fanatic, harbouring a girlhood crush on the heroes of the 1916 uprising. She carries around a radio, to hear Margaret Thatcher denounce the IRA as criminals, the more to enjoy her seething outrage. “Sure, I think it’s what keeps her going,” jokes Quinn. But Aunt Pat can bite.

Her steel-rimmed specs gleam with menace under the stage lights as she tells sly stories that point to the covert ménage a trois of Quinn, his neglected wife Mary, and Caitlin. For Pat, the only betrayal that matters is that of Irish nationalism: “Some round here are a bit confused. Day by day, they’re forgetting themselves. Who they are. What they are.” When the IRA henchman turns up to offer “condolences” (rarely has the word been used so effectively to instil a sense of menace), the family’s body language show that tots and grown-ups alike see an intruder for the danger he is. Pat stalks over to shake his hand and give a speech about the IRA’s bravery.

In this barbed-wire territory, Butterworth pulls off a first at the reliably leftie Royal Court — a play that features Margaret Thatcher on the sidelines, without blaming everything on her. Lured into the chaotic warmth of the Carney family, we are confronted by the way the the IRA infiltrated lives, ruling its own by the threat of violence, recrimination or blackmail, just as readily as it attacked British rule. We hear speeches from the youthful cousin recruit about “justice” channelling Sands’s final message that he “hungered only for justice”. The pathos is undercut with the recognition that justice without mercy leads to Robespierre, not redemption. 

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