Life backstage at The Ferryman is “chaos,” according to its star Laura Donnelly: “Geese barking. Babies crying. Little kids running around.” Jez Butterworth’s barnstorming family thriller, playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre this fall following an acclaimed, Olivier Award–winning London run, comes with a cast of 22 in tow, from a 6-month-old babe-in-arms to stage veterans in their seventies — with a few rabbits and a goose thrown in for good measure. “The idea that we’re bringing all that to New York,” Donnelly marvels. “It feels like the circus is coming to town.”
And what a circus! The Ferryman has been one of British theater’s biggest hits in years, spending more than a year in the West End. Set in rural Northern Ireland in 1981, against the turbulent backdrop of sectarian violence, it takes us into the teeming Carney family farmhouse, where politics gets pushed aside and secrets gather dust. The biggest of them is the unspoken love between Quinn Carney, played by Paddy Considine, and his sister-in-law Caitlin (Donnelly), as his sickly wife, Mary, is confined to her bed upstairs. They share a tragedy: Her husband, his brother, an IRA informant, disappeared a decade ago — and his blackened body has just been dredged out of a bog.
The story’s roots stem from Donnelly’s own family history. Last seen on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman in The River, also by Butterworth, Donnelly grew up in Belfast at a time when bomb scares were common and soldiers patrolled the streets. “That, for me, was complete normality,” she says. “We didn’t realize it wasn’t until it ended and we stepped out of it in 1997. Then we realized it was quite an extreme situation to live in.”
Her uncle was among The Disappeared — victims of the violence who were never accounted for. Abducted in 1981, “he was found by accident three years later, in a bog, by a man walking his dog,” she says. It was, understandably, “incredibly harrowing” for the family. “It wasn’t really talked about much — and that’s typical, I think. There was a lot of silence and fear.” Donnelly only fully understood her uncle’s fate when his photograph appeared in a documentary about The Disappeared; it was something Butterworth, with whom Donnelly has two children, found “incredibly moving. The whole play came out of that.”
It’s people, not politics, who are at the heart of The Ferryman. It’s a human drama, first and foremost — a sprawling family play. That’s what drew Considine in. “I didn’t pick up the script and feel its political resonance,” he says. “Jez knows how to write about people. That’s his gift.” Donnelly agrees: “His style isn’t like anyone else’s. His imagination is so incredible, but he’s always creating real people.”
Considine found Quinn Carney, a man turning away from a troubled and violent past to try to raise his family in peace, immediately compelling. “He’s done some sickening things and wants to get away from that, but at the same time, his life’s become a bit of an act. He’s trying so hard to be the family man, the joker, but the past he’s trying to escape is coming to get him.”
For Donnelly, Caitlin is the same. “She has this immense sadness and sense of loss — something she and Quinn both share — but they both get on with life as best they can,” she says. “She’s in this house with all these kids, getting them ready for their day, managing this family while also managing to keep her feelings for Quinn hidden.”
That, they agree, makes the play universal. “On paper, it sounds quite specific,” Donnelly admits, “something you’d need to know Northern Ireland to enjoy. But it’s not at all. It’s about the human experience: about love and loss, silence and anger.” She pauses. “And ghosts.”
More than anything, though, it’s about family — something everyone can relate to in some way. “Family’s a very dysfunctional thing,” Considine continues. “There’s a lot of rot in families. There’s a lot families can’t talk about. The play very much celebrates the family, the importance of coming together, but no matter how many gatherings we have, how many times we celebrate the harvest, that rot will eventually come to the surface.”
The Ferryman is Considine’s first-ever stage play. A singular screen actor, once described as “the best-kept secret in British movies,” he’s led films as varied as Dead Man’s Shoes, 24 Hour Party People, and, most recently, his self-penned boxing screenplay, Journeyman. Spotted by Shane Meadows (This Is England) straight out of college, having never trained, he’d never stepped onto a stage before. “It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” Considine says of the London run. “Several times I wanted to run away and not do it, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I had nowhere to hide.”
His performance won him an Olivier nomination. “I lucked out on material,” Considine concedes. “Actors don’t just roll up and give great performances out of the blue. You need the material.” The Ferryman provided it in spades. “Weeks in, you could sit at the side of the stage or in your dressing room listening to it and hear new things. I’ve never had that experience, where something keeps growing, keeps taking on more depth. I loved it.”
London audiences did too — a testament to the taut thriller tucked beneath the tumble of Carney family life. Donnelly says she’s “never experienced a reaction like it in any play I’ve done.” At the end of the first preview, “within a split second the entire audience was on their feet. To experience that sort of absolute, I don’t know, euphoria was extraordinary.” In the West End, she sensed audiences seemed to hold their breath at the end: “You can hear the silence. You’d think you might lose people after three and a half hours, but I swear you could have heard a pin drop.”
That’s doubly satisfying for Donnelly as a performer and on a personal level. She’s found the play healing, somehow. “It’s been cathartic,” she says. “It redresses an imbalance from my childhood.” Her mother feels the same. “Having a light shone on the subject — something kept quiet for so long — has been a relief. Difficult sometimes, but she’s immensely proud.” Where there was silence on top of sadness, now there’s a circus — and it’s brimming with life.