London’s fall theatre season is on such a meteoric rise, it’s hard to imagine how it could soar any higher. Three exhilarating productions of new works by contemporary British writers are igniting as well as enlightening audiences on a variety of compelling topics and themes.
First and foremost is The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, at the Gielgud Theatre in West End. With Mojo and Jerusalem, Butterworth has distinguished himself as playwright whose work literally explodes onstage. The marvel of his thrilling new play, transferred from the Royal Court to the West End, is that it does that and so much more.
On one level, it’s a rich and robust family play of a magnitude you rarely see on the modern stage. You meet the Carney clan, all 16 of them, ranging in age from eight months to late 80s. They’re the most charming, engaging coterie of contemporary Irish characters you’ll want to know, and the kitchen of their tiny farmhouse in County Armagh, where the play takes place, is overflowing with life. Just when you you’ve met one clan member, another comes rolling down the stairs to join the others. They wrap you around their collective fingers for more than three hours with stories of their pasts, their passions, their longings, their dreams.
But this is no ordinary family comedy-drama. On a broader level, it’s a play that encapsulates Ireland’s recent turbulent history —namely “The Troubles,” the violent struggle between Catholics and Protestants that has wracked Northern Ireland for a century (and more). Set in 1981, at the time of the hunger strike that claimed 10 young martyrs, the play looks back almost 100 years to the Easter Uprising of 1916 while at the same time dramatizing the tragic consequences of a century of violence in the play’s present.
The action of the play takes place over a taut 24 hours. It’s harvest time, and Quinn Carney, a former IRA member and the household’s titular head, is gathering his sons, nephews, and young cousins to do the seasonal work. Markedly absent is Quinn’s brother, who disappeared mysteriously a decade ago, leaving his widow Caitlin and their son Michael to live under Quinn’s roof. Caitlin and Quinn have shared an unrequited love all these years, while Mary, Quinn’s wife, suffers upstairs from a mysterious ailment (clearly exacerbated by a loveless marriage). But Quinn is determined to bury the past, maintain the family’s leadership, and survive.
And so, according to harvest tradition, dinner is served, whiskey is imbibed, Irish songs are sung, joyous jigs are danced, and stories are told by the aged aunties of Ireland’s hopes and dreams. Then comes the inevitable knock on the door, and the past becomes the present. It’s Muldoon, eminent IRA leader, who’s come to tell Quinn that his brother’s body has finally been found in a nearby bog. The circumstances surrounding his violent death are revealed, and Muldoon makes an impossible demand on the anguished Quinn that he must face.
Director Sam Mendes masterfully navigates a mammoth ensemble of 22—plus a live goose, bunny rabbit, and (yes) an eight-month-old baby (the youngest Carney). The stage teems with “life as it is” (as Chekhov put it), ranging from scenes of exuberance (a fabulous company jig) to the inevitable confrontation of past and present. Each and every actor shines in these rich roles that Butterworth has created. Paddy Considine is deeply moving as the conflicted Quinn, as is the radiant Laura Donnelly as Caitlin. The octogenarian aunties are priceless: Bríd Brennan as the Cassandra-like Aunt Maggie Faraway, Dearbhla Molloy as the rebellious Aunt Patricia. Stuart Graham plays Muldoon, the IRA leader, with a subtle mixture of authority, benevolence, and menace, while Gerard Horan offers a Father Horrigan, helpless to intervene in the self-destructive spiral that takes this family—and Northern Ireland—down. As for the rest of the company, it’s a thrill to see a dozen talented young actors under the age of 18 performing with such passion and verve.
One character stands apart from the above-mentioned, the only British one in the cast: Tom Kettle, the Carney’s slow-witted neighbor, a gentle giant (played touchingly by John Hodgkinson) who serves both as both a Shakespearean fool and a clairvoyant. An innocent, seemingly harmless bystander, he is drawn into the conflict with unexpected and devastating results. Is Tom the ferryman Charon of the title, who, according to Greek mythology, is there to escort the unburied dead over the river Styx, and for a price? According to the myth, if he is not paid, the unburied souls are doomed to roam the earth for 100 more years. Is this the dark prophesy that Butterworth’s play is offering about the Irish Troubles and their profound consequences? What price must Ireland pay to bury the past?
Accordingly, Butterworth has served up a tragedy of Greek magnitude. As in the Oresteia, Butterworth gives us three generations of a family caught in the tragic cycle of violence, politics, and revenge: the older generation, who lost any promise of a happy life; Quinn and his brother, torn fatally in two directions; and their sons, who again must choose sides. In all its dazzling achievements, The Ferryman is the best new play I’ve seen in decades—and a production that features a wonderful director, author, and cast at the zenith of their artistry.
“A good fucking story only has value if it’s heard.”
So go the first lines of James Graham’s gripping new drama, Ink, a transfer to the West End from the Almeida—and the playwright makes good on his promise.
Graham’s spellbinding story couldn’t be more timely, when a “win at any cost” mentality is driving both English and American politics. Ink tells the story of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul who bought London’s tabloid newspaper The Sun in 1969. He hired Larry Lamb away from The Mirror, the rival tabloid, and named him editor, charging him to push The Sun to the top of the tabloid circulation race—at any cost.
“The street is the Wild West,” Murdoch explains to Lamb, whom he charges to create a brazen high profile for The Sun and make it a “people’s paper,” as in, “Give the people what they want!” Lamb, at first traumatized by Murdoch’s ruthless, unprincipled tactics, quickly falls in line.
Director Rupert Goold has striven to tell this story in the most entertaining way possible. He’s evoked the seedy culture of the so-called “Street of Shame” (Fleet Street), the center of London’s newspaper industry at the time, where deals, steals, and back-stabbings occurred in the adjacent pubs and bars. On a unit set designed by Bunny Christie, the littered, unkempt Sun offices are constructed one atop another like a stack of old newspapers, while a printing press occasionally emerges from below the stage floor. On this multilevel stage, a tight troupe of 13 acts out Graham’s well-crafted, tightly structured story in rapid fire scenes, punctuated by vaudeville-style dance routines, accompanied by an onstage pianist. It’s as entertaining as it is chilling to watch
Act I features the meteoric rise of The Sun in its first year under the Murdoch/Lamb leadership. Lamb stimulates his staff to come up with a new focus for the paper: gossip, TV, weather, sports, “woman’s” page, and sex. “Win, Free, Love” becomes the slogan, and within a month after declaring a distribution war against The Mirror, The Sun’s circulation increases from 650,000 to 1.2 million. “Who needs friends when you have readers?” cries Murdoch, driving them on. “Stop worrying about being liked: Be the loudest, be the brashest!”
The paper becomes more outrageous (and salacious), instituting such features as “Pussy Week” or “Meet the Trucker Week.” The paper hires scantily models to represent “Lusty Labour” and “Tarty Tory” on Sun pages.
In Act II the plot thickens. A kidnapping scheme intended for Murdoch’s wife Anna goes wrong, and the assistant editor’s wife, Muriel McKay, is kidnapped instead. Larry capitalizes on this as an opportunity to increase sales by running sensational headlines, without regard for the hostage’s fate. Lamb’s final desperate effort: a nude shot of one of the office models to celebrate their first year in business. “One year and a pair of tits,” exults Murdoch, who, having achieved his goal, now eyes America as his new market. Lamb is left to face the young woman whose life he has ruined to achieve his boss’s goal.
As Murdoch, Bertie Carvel gives a riveting performance, as memorable as his award-winning Miss Trunchbull in the hit musical Matilda. With his hunched shoulders, piercing voice, and magnetic intensity, he’s like a modern-day Richard III who will stop at nothing to conquer his foe. Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb is a portrayal of a conflicted man so caught up in a corrupt mission that he’s lost his moral compass.
Meanwhile, in real life, Rupert Murdoch has gone on to become an American citizen and expand his mighty media empire worldwide, acquiring newspapers, magazines, even a movie studio. Despite investigations into hacking, bribery, and corruption by both the British government and the FBI, Murdoch, now 86, continues to flourish today as acting CEO of Fox News. “Power replaces itself with itself,” says Murdoch in the play. Art imitates life, or is that the other way around?
What is the moral responsibility of the press? That’s the question this hard-hitting play asks. It’s an open question that commands our attention as we watch our own press struggle with a moral crisis caused by the hostile takeover of our country by another ruthless mogul. Graham has written about power and morality before (see his play This House about the British Parliament in the last 1970s). Could “fake news” be Graham’s next “good fucking story”?
Science may not sound like promising dramatic fare, but in the hands of fine dramatists like Tom Stoppard (Arcadia) and Michael Frayn (Copenhagen), they can be thrilling, both in form and content.
You can add Mosquitoes, Lucy Kirkwood’s high-reaching new play at the National Theatre, to that short list. How she manages to conflate science and family is the wonder of her ambitious effort. In Geneva in 2012, Alice, a British scientist at CERN (the European laboratory for particle physics), is visited by her sister Jenny and their mother, Karen. Karen and daughter Alice are top scientists, while Jenny is a stay-at-home who sells health insurance to women over the telephone. Alice and the scientific community are euphoric over the Higgs Boson particle, a profound discovery enabling scientists to model the long-term evolution and ultimate fate of the universe. But Jenny couldn’t care less: Mistrustful of science, she avoided giving her baby daughter the MMR vaccine, resulting in the child’s death and Jenny’s emotional breakdown.
Like two particles—or mosquitoes, as the play’s title suggests—the two sisters collide on almost everything from lifestyle (Alice is a professional success, Jenny is a “failure”) to temperament, to how to manage their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer), who is in the early stages of Alzheimers. This sibling rivalry, fueled by Karen, constitutes the play’s conflict, and Olivia Williams (as Alice) and Olivia Colman (as Jenny) play their dueling roles superbly.
What emerges, eventually, is that they also have a lot in common: Both have failed in marriage and parenting. Alice’s husband, also a scientist, abandoned the family long ago, and Jenny is estranged from her partner. Jenny has lost her child, and Alice is in the process of losing her neurotic teenage son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who misses his father and challenges his mother’s scientific research on ecological grounds.
In a side plot, Luke struggles at school, where he’s ostracized and bullied. His only friend lures him into a “sexting encounter” that shames him. Isolated and alone, he acts out by damaging his mother’s research.
Sounds complicated? It is. Kirkwood tackles many themes: women in science, theoretical physics, research and discovery, marriage, parenting, and communication (both live and electronic).
What brings all these disparate elements together is Rufus Norris’s ingenious staging. He’s configured the intimate Dorfman Theatre in the round, with an overhanging disc that mirrors the circular floor of the staging (designed by Katrina Lindsay). Between each scene, Norris brings in a corps of stage hands dressed as scientists, who move the minimal set pieces while Paule Constable’s flashing lights, Adam Cork’s music, and Paul Arditti’s sound design evoke a series of explosive scientific experiments.
The effect is dazzling, as is the supernatural metaphoric connection Kirkwood makes between science and family. A character called the Boson (played by Paul Hilton), named after the subatomic particle discovered in 2012, roams the stage during these intervals, talking about physics and the universe, about chaos theory and the Big Bang. Is he a “talking scientific head” or the specter of Luke’s long-lost father (also a scientist), commenting on chaos, both universal and emotional? Is he implying, in his speech on a possible second Big Bang, that Alice and Jenny might find happiness in their future familial relationships, after all?
Kirkwood addressed the issues of science, family, and morality in another compelling play, The Children, which bowed last year at the Royal Court Theatre and will resurface this season at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Let’s hope that Mosquitoes, as well as Ink and The Ferryman, make that transatlantic crossing as well.
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