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A GHOST WITHIN A GHOST: REVIEW OF JEZ BUTTERWORTH'S THE FERRYMAN


SPOILER WARNING:

Almost the last line of the play - in a shocking shit-fan whirlwind - gives it away - "what will we do"? Far from being merely a stereotypically Irish problem play in the shadow of the gunman, or the ploughman and the stars, Jez Butterworth's bizarre post-modern masterplay directed by Bond helmer Sam Mendes, is all about stories, and how they are told - often very badly.

This is a play of half-remembered poems, dementia-fuelled fairy stories, and lies and demi-lies, all spoken in the name of attempting to find a strand of sense and narrative in the melee of time and history - we are reminded that even Darius interrupted war to let the harvest come in, so potent was the symbolism of that ritual.

There is the harvest story, and the boys' stories, and the story of Jesus on the cross, and the stories of love at the GPO... all the stories in the play end badly, or are told badly. Of course, it is also about feast and famine, sowing what you reap, and ghosts becoming visible...

But mainly, it is a pastiche of poetry and poetical tropes. It is astonishing how many references, indeed shaping measures, within the play, take their bearings directly from the great poets of The Troubles.

Firstly, the victim found in the bog, perfectly, preserved, is pure Seamus Heaney - and the victim's name is: Seamus. And who is the man who comes after? Why, Mr Muldoon... That's not all - the title is based on a reading from Virgil... which is actually reminiscent of Heaney's poetry and  classical focus on the dead, and burial (such as at Thebes).

Even Tom Kettle recites a poem - ironically by Sir Walter Raleigh, a British imperialist. But Kettle's name comes from a mostly-forgotten Irish poet. Moreover, the mother's ghostly presence and absence and name exactly mirrors that figure in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night - whose structure this play emulates, and whose echoes of ghosts and fog and the past heaving into view are endemic here. Yeats' poems and songs are referenced throughout...

In fact, watching this play one becomes incredulous, excited or enraged, at the multiple acts of homage/pastiche that riddles the text like bullet-fire.

Surely, this is intentional - surely, what is at hand is a rough Ur-text, a big shambling beast with the spoor of the Yeti, screaming - all your stories of empire and Ireland are just that - stories - show me where the bodies are buried, and dispense with the story-telling... words have never solved a thing in Ireland... nor love, nor violence... so - what do we do?
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