If you want to see an electrifying new play that features a mercurial performance by Paddy Considine as a reformed IRA activist and has a tortured Irish priest who is as conflicted and anguished as any creation by Graham Greene, then make sure you get to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre.
This extraordinary play opens in the farmhouse kitchen of the Carney family in Northern Ireland in 1981. There is a visitor: the gangster-like “Mr Muldoon”, a leading IRA figure. The sort of man you don’t want to cross under any circumstances.
The play has a brutal and lyrical prologue in a back alley in Derry where Father Horrigan (played by Gerard Horan), the Carney family’s priest, has been “invited” for a late-night encounter with Mr Muldoon, played with thuggish brilliance by Stuart Graham.
While Butterworth has not been the only recent British playwright to dramatise the blurring of private and public loyalties and religious conscience in modern Ireland – David Ireland’s Everything Between Us explores similar themes but from a Protestant angle – no playwright comes close to creating an emotional universe through which a better understanding of the deeper issues that lay behind the Troubles can be grasped in human rather than purely political terms. The scene in which an English labourer – a Shakespearean rural fool – reads out Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “The Silent Lover” is a moment of poignant theatre that reminds one that politics always has a human side.
To get the most out of the play, I also strongly suggest reading a new biography of the inter-war political figure and socialite Sir Philip Sassoon, by Damian Collins MP. The book is entitled Charmed Life: the Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon, and you might wonder what this Gatsby-like figure has to do with Irish priesthood and Northern Ireland in the 1980s.
Collins – who was educated at Belmont Abbey and read history at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford – is an expert on modern Irish history and understands international and foreign affairs better than most. During the Coalition government he served as parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the then foreign secretary Philip Hammond. From 2012 to 2014 he was PPS to the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. The Anglo-Irish political stage set of the 1920s that Collins describes explains the historic background to the creation of the Irish Free State better than any other book I have read on the subject.
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