Last month I saw two plays about life in Ireland, and the effect of the IRA. Both were written by English men, both were about things I didn’t know that much about. I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman on a wet afternoon in London at the Gielgud Theatre where it transfer to from the Royal Court. A couple of weeks later I saw Jimmy’s Hall in the Abbey. Both are period pieces set in Ireland but they are very different plays, in their treatment of the IRA and Irish history, and in the way they were staged.
Jimmy’s Hall is based on the Ken Loach film of the same name, and they are both based on the true story of Jimmy Galvin and the community hall he built and managed in Leitrim in the 1930s. It’s about the opposition he encountered when he organised community art classes, poetry performances and dances. This opposition originated from the Catholic Church but ultimately it was the Irish government who had him deported; the only Irish man to ever be deported from the State.
The Abbey’s production emphasises the real-life aspects of the story, with direct addresses to the audience that includes Church directives on what women could and couldn’t wear, descriptions of the court scenes at Jimmy’s trial and a recent speech by President Higgins where he called out the shameful behaviour of the State. This opens the show and of course made me teary-eyed. There are few things as effecting as the rightous anger of our magnificent president.
The production is also lushly visual and includes lots of live music. This is performed by the cast who also perform wonderful dance sequences. We get the impression of a community that is lively and connected, despite being ground down by poverty. The characters talk about the broken promises of the 1916 Rising, about how the bubble burst, about the uselessness of politicians and how living should be about need, not greed. Their concerns and difficulties resonance with the present day, with characters facing homelessness and even the Church’s insistence on controlling education is similar to their Sisters of Charity’s attempt to hold on to control of the new maternity hospital earlier this year. We continue to fight the same battles. Our hero, Mr. Jimmy Galvin is a proud communist, working for the betterment of all. In contrast the clear villain of the piece is the parish priest, Fr. Sheridan who was almost booed like a pantomime villain when he first appeared on stage. It was an interesting experience to feel that distaste for the church in the Abbey Theatre on a Saturday lunchtime from an Abbey audience. The off-stage villain was the IRA who it was felt had let down the people by getting into bed with the Church.
The priest in The Ferryman is a more pathetic character as he is forced to act as messenger boy for the IRA, sent to deliver information about a man, missing for the last 10 years has been found dead. It’s 1981, Maggie Thatcher is letting the hunger strikers die in prison and the Carney family are getting ready for the harvest. The Ferryman is strongly grounded in that time and place, there are no present day echos here. The set and costumes are impressive with a strong attention to detail. This set quickly fills with members of the Carney family.
From the beginning, the audience knows that this happy, busy, family day is going to interrupted with the news that a body has been discovered. It is skillfully told, and there’s a lot to tell in this 3 hour production, and very enjoyable. The Carneys are a good Catholic family with seven children, though when one of the younger girls is told her future by her clairvoyant grandmother, she baulks at the idea of triplets. They don’t see motherhood as their only option. It feels like a time teetering on the cusp of modernity. The Undertones make an appearance on the soundtrack and the clothes are relatively modern, but the work of bringing in the harvest is left to the men. The female children busy themselves with kitchen chores and childcare while male cousins are bussed in to help with the farm work. The IRA are glorified and the Rising has already become a glorious myth in a way that is not felt in Jimmy’s Hall when all the bloodshed and friends and family lost are still fresh wounds.
Patrick Lonergan has written a post called “Is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman an Irish Play?” where he talks about the various echos of many plays from the Irish canon, among other things. I found The Ferryman a more traditionally Irish play than the first in-house production from the new Abbey directors. There are aspects of post-dramatic theatre in Jimmy’s Hall and the use of dance and music feels modern. Even the soundtrack is modern – the audience enter the auditorium to trad covers of Whitney Houston among others. The Ireland depicted in The Ferryman is gone, and it’s depicted with a certain nostalgia. The Ireland in Jimmy’s Hall on the other hand – an Ireland still struggling out from under the long shadow of the Church’s control, an Ireland that doesn’t protect or support it’s most vulnerable citizens – that feels very current.
The Ferryman is the bigger production of the two, with a long running time, a big cast, including lots of young children and live animals and a violent, dramatic ending. However it is Jimmy’s Hall that I would love to see again. It felt more moving, more engaging and more relevant than a lot of things I’ve seen lately. It reminded me of Riot, which is one of my favourite shows from the last year. The inclusion of The Parting Glass in both shows makes me think I may not have been the only one to link the two.