The choreographed chaos of Jez Butterworth’s jaw-dropping play The Ferryman certainly earns the critical attention that’s been heaped on it. With 21 people in the cast — and a live goose and rabbit — the play about an extended family in 1980s Northern Ireland leaves audiences reeling after a suspenseful three-plus hours. Part of that is due to the savvy narrative structure that defies dramatic rules and should be impossible to pull off. Part of that is a stellar cast that manages to weave the love and violence into an organic whole that resembles reality while also being something eerily magical. But another essential ingredient of this production’s oozing stew, masterfully directed by Sam Mendes, is the way music and sound is handled.
Nick Powell, who is responsible for the sound design and original music, says they worked hard to craft an artistic narrative using the sounds within the world of the show. “The songs that I wrote, I was really aware that I didn’t want them to be ‘fiddledeedee’; I wanted them to have the flavor of Irish music, but I didn’t want them to be pastiche,” he explains. “That was really important to me since there is a cliche of Irish music, that it’s almost frivolous, but it’s also earthy and connected, serious and passionate. We needed the music to be emotional and connected to that identity.”
But it all kicks off at the top of the show with one of the greatest English rock bands of all time. We’re greeted by two people drinking in a big farmhouse kitchen and soon Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) is imitating Mick Jagger’s moves as he and his sister-in-law, Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” from the 1968 album Beggars Banquet.
Butterworth says that song was chosen because it means something to him personally. Although he’s English and this is a very Irish play set in the Troubles in 1981 and was partially inspired by Donnelly’s own family history, and the story of her uncle who vanished from his town in Northern Ireland. The kitchen set is a “carbon copy” of Butterworth’s own kitchen in Devon, England, and even contains replicas of props that belong to his daughter (like the George Harrison Yellow Submarine toy), which can prove to be uncanny for his family when they’ve come to watch.
“One of the things that went on in that kitchen night after night after night was sitting up until dawn listening to rock & roll, and we’d would always end up listening to Rolling Stones,” he explains. “The song that’s really important and emotional to me is not actually ‘Street Fighting Man,’ it’s actually “Loving Cup” because, I think the album I played more than any other album in my life — and I have lived my entire life to music — would be Exile.”
While that moment may have personal resonance for Butterworth, the crucial musical scene occurs later on and is structured in three parts. It begins when the family’s harvest feast erupts into a traditional Irish song and dance, then abruptly transitions into a punk song, before ending with an old Irish song of rebellion “A Row in the Town (Erin Go Bragh).”
Butterworth is hyper aware that the ceilidh (pronounced kaley) could teeter into cliche. “It’s one form of celebration, which is perhaps a little corny and perhaps a little, let’s say Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, where everyone’s dancing around having a great time,” he says. “I thought, ‘What if one of the kids from town takes off this traditional music…’ — it felt like it spoke to the difference between the country and the town as well, which is a theme that starts to come out at that point of the story.”
It’s the way in which actor Tom Glynn-Carney dances in a herky-jerky style to the Undertones’ song, “Teenage Kicks” — his hip movements adding to his already dangerous, sexual swagger — that proves pivotal to the scene. “We had absolutely no idea when we cast [him] that he could dance like that, and it has an extraordinary effect on the way in which you view his character from there on. It was just a complete fluke,” Butterworth admits. “Because he’s got a completely unique style of dancing. It seems to not be based on anything. It’s incredible.”
The choice of song may seem random to American audiences, since the 1970s Irish punk band was never big in the States, but it’s something that is immediately recognizable to British ears. “It’s a massive anthem for the Northern Irish,” Butterworth says. “And it’s a cracking song.” Its popularity in the U.K. is mainly due to John Peel, BBC Radio 1’s longest serving DJ, who claimed it as his favorite — and even had the lyric from the song, “teenage dreams so hard to beat,” etched onto his gravestone.
Some may wonder why an iconic Irish band such as U2 wasn’t incorporated into the narrative, but Butterworth says it “literally never crossed my mind.”
“It wasn’t part of my consciousness at that time,” he says. “I didn’t really encounter U2 myself until I saw it written on older kids’ bags at school, like in 1980 and ‘81. I’m also not the world’s biggest U2 fan, so I don’t think it would feel right to put them in.”
Ultimately, there’s really no need for audiences to ponder such small cultural quibbles as the play trundles along toward its shocking climax. The collage of sounds and emotions and lessons have been meticulously woven into a story that leaves the audience stunned. The sort of live theater experience that makes you crave more.