Butterworth, an Englishman, didn’t set out to write a play set during the Troubles; if anything, he told me, it felt like “a terrible idea, a really really bad one.” Fragments of the play had been percolating in his mind for decades: a work based in part on the experiences of his partner at the time, the actress Laura Donnelly, who plays Caitlin Carney in The Ferryman and whose uncle was disappeared seven months before she was born. “I didn’t want to begin,” Butterworth said, “but once the voices start coming to you, and the plot starts coming to you, you haven’t really got a choice.”
But what sets The Ferryman apart, even from Butterworth’s other successes (his 2009 play Jerusalem was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play), is how deeply it probes the heritage of hate, using the framework of the Troubles to explore traditions and impulses that are buried even in the earth itself. In the same bog where Seamus was found, Magennis notes, prehistoric men have resurfaced, sometimes with their hands and feet bound, victims of crimes that predate the history books. The Ferryman, an intimate family drama with the breadth of Greek tragedy, explores the impact of deeply entrenched discord on a community that has conflict in its DNA, whose children are raised on folk tales about fierce, warmongering fairies, and who bear the cost of choices made decades ago, the toll passed down from generation to generation.
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Butterworth is a prolific writer for film and television. He contributed to the script for the last Bond movie, Spectre, and cowrote both the Valerie Plame biopic Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and the 2015 Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass. He’s a writer on the upcoming drama Britannia, a fantastical, Game of Thrones-style series starring David Morrissey and Kelly Reilly. But plays, for him, come slowly. His last show before The Ferryman was The River, which ran in 2012 in productions in London and New York starring, variously, Dominic West and Hugh Jackman. Jerusalem, which debuted in 2009 in a production starring Mark Rylance, was previously his biggest hit to date. “I think for some reason I’ve made film much more of a technique-based thing,” he said. “It’s way more of a craft than I’ve allowed plays to be. I do see them very differently. I don’t have many original ideas for anything. I tend to work for film in a kind of hired-gun capacity, and as such it feels like a blessed relief.”
The idea for The Ferryman coagulated in 2015, when Butterworth was in New York for The River, heading to a cabin owned by Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company. Butterworth had previously written a significant portion of his play Parlour Song there, after being snowed in while alone. In the car with Donnelly, he suddenly had the idea to write something about Northern Ireland, and when he ran it by her, she replied that it sounded like a story. When he got to the cabin, Butterworth wrote out a skeleton plan for the play, in a shift from his typical process. “Usually, when I’m writing a play, I just follow my nose,” he said. Then he left the concept alone for two years, until, in early 2017, he sat down and started writing. The pace of writing—an idea mulled for several years, followed by a feverish burst of activity—was normal, he said. “They kind of find their way into being. … I do think there’s something about not being in a hurry with things. You want them to feel indelible and worthwhile and not of their time, because they take so much out of you.”