It doesn't matter what I think of The Ferryman on Broadway because the London critics loved it and now the New York gatekeepers have given it their benedictions too.
It doesn't matter because the tickets are being snapped up and the award buzz has already started building.
It doesn't matter that Jez Butterworth's play is about as subtle as a brick hurled through an Orange Hall window. It doesn't matter that it's not really an Irish play in any sense at all, but rather a sort of late Shakespearean comedy festooned with vaguely Irish avatars superimposed over an arrestingly weird mashup of influences that include Cold Comfort Farm, The Brady Bunch and High Noon.
Here's why I involuntarily thought of The Brady Bunch when I watched Butterworth's odd Irish, Greek and Shakespearean confection on Broadway this week.
To begin with, it was the fault of that giant staircase to the stars on stage right, through which the Carney family descend and ascend the thirty or more steps to someplace higher than mere rustic bedrooms, to Olympus or Tír na nÓg perhaps, it's never explained.
The bonhomie at the giant Carney kitchen table also made me think of that saccharine 70s American situation comedy, too. The parents were unfailingly reasonable and attentive, the children were spirited but well behaved, they even had a live-in (to all intents and purposes) maid whilst the mother of the house reclined in bed. It was we the audience who provided the laugh track.
Not sufficiently explained either is the classical education of Uncle Pat, the elderly Virgil-quoting relative (played by Mark Lambert) who seems to have been teleported in from Brian Friel's Translations to give this endlessly eventful romp some bluntly mythic underpinnings, presumably for the benefit of the Greco-Roman antiquarians in the audience, but I can't say for sure.
Not explained either is the Arcadian harvest festival dinner being planned by the Carneys, which a character called Aunt Maggie Far Away (with the fairies, presumably) quickly leavens with some scare-some talk about the Banshee. Fionnula Flanagan does very well in this role, but she is hamstrung by a character that is so obviously part Mother Ireland and part Delphic oracle.
Aunt Pat (played by Dearbhla Molloy) is the spitfire spinster who seems to be composed entirely of cigarette smoke and malevolence. She's the funniest person in the play and the most compelling too, but she's short-changed by a script that slowly steers her toward stage Republican caricature. Laura Donnelly is so good in the role of Caitlin, the torch-carrying poor relation, that I already can't wait for her return to Broadway.
Anyway, it's 1982 and the hunger strikes (and Thatcher's high-handed response to them) have rubbed the nationalist community raw. So far so good. Earlier we learned, in an interminable plot sequence, that an IRA kingpin called Muldoon has an agenda.
We know he has an agenda because we watched him twirl his mustache and chew the scenery as though he were a general on the bridge of the Death Star rather than Derry. Also, he is dressed head to toe in black (like I said, High Noon).
The plot of The Ferryman is on its face ridiculous: a gunmen orders a former gunman to keep his mouth shut about a gunman who got gunned by gunmen who will gun the former gunman if he mentions the gunmen who shot the gunman. Something like that, I lost count. It's simply a contrivance to drive the engine, power the play.
Meanwhile, the specter of death is as omnipresent as the celebration of life and the golden harvest. Never one without the other, eh? But in the midst of all the drinking and dancing is the blackened ghost of young Seamus, whose body has turned up dead in a peat bog after a decade.
What's disorienting about The Ferryman is that real life keeps breaking through its idyllic forest of Arden set up, but each time it does we even have a melancholy Jaques figure to pull a rabbit from his pockets or quote Virgil, tearing at the fabric of what is real with whimsical theatrical fancy.
I need to raise my hand here. I remember rural life in Ulster in 1981, being about the same age as the kids in the play then. Back then, people weren't celebrating big bountiful autumn harvests with rustic Arcadian dances and giant family feasts. More often they were reeling from seeing the land they loved turned into a slaughterhouse. It was a depressing time.
Back then after you conducted your business out of doors you headed home, usually with your head down, hoping not to be stopped by the security forces or worse. There really wasn't a lot of golden world country dancing going on. Strangely enough, we weren't in the mood.
So many scenes rankled me or made me scoff. At the end of act one what looks like a freshly killed plastic goose is hung on a meat hook over the kitchen window where, in a bit of lamentably crude foreshadowing, young Oisin (played by Rob Malone) sees it and, well it's one of the them-there metaphors isn't it, so the lights dim as the music swells.
Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic of The New York Times, could not shake the memory of this scene. I shook from laughter at it. It's not just that it was unintentionally funny, echoing Cold Comfort Farm (I saw summat nasty in the woodshed) it's insufferable, suggesting that bloodshed and death are an inescapable terminus for the luckless haunted inhabitants of this bitterly contested earth.
The over the top dénouement sees multiple fatalities falling across the stage as Aunt Maggie Far Away crosses it herself in a billowy nightgown muttering about the Banshee and the walking dead like an escapee from a Lady Gregory play. There are Greek tragedies with lower body counts - so whither now all that Arcadian good fellowship?
If there's one place in the English-speaking world that Americans know less about than even the English, it's Ireland. To the average American we're a sort of unstable mash-up of castles and fairies and sad ghosts and Guinness; in England, we're often just the small, sad field between them and the Atlantic. Both of these outlooks are problematic.
If you enjoy short conversations, for fun some time you can ask the people reviewing this play and the hordes who nightly applaud it to list a few turning points in Irish history. It'll be a very short walk from potatoes to the Troubles. And about as insightful.
The Ferryman means well and it often plays well. But it simply isn't us.
Have you seen The Ferryman yet? What did you make of it?