Jez Butterworth & Laura Donnelly on “The Ferryman”

Hari Sreenivasan discusses “The Ferryman” with actress Laura Donnelly, whose uncle disappeared during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, and its playwright, Jez Butterworth.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: In Northern Ireland, the conflict known as The Troubles stretched on for decades. It affected every family, Catholic and Protestant alike. That includes the actor Laura Donnelly whose uncle disappeared. His body was later found buried in a bog. Her partner is the renowned Playwright Jez Butterworth and he used that tragic story as inspiration for his latest play, “The Ferryman.” It’s a play that opened in London to rave reviews and many awards. And now, it’s on Broadway where the couple sat down with our Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jez Butterworth, what is this play about?

JEZ BUTTERWORTH, PLAYWRIGHT, THE FERRYMAN: It’s about three-and-a-half hours long. It’s set in Northern Ireland in 1981 in the middle of The Troubles, in the middle of the hunger strikes on a farm where the harvest is being put in.

SREENIVASAN: There’s a disappearance at the center of this and this is based in part on your family history. It seems that families don’t really talk about that much. So how did this get into the play?

LAURA DONNELLY, ACTRESS, THE FERRYMAN: They definitely don’t and that was that was part of how it did come up was because we had been watching a documentary on The Disappeared of Northern Ireland. And my uncle’s face appeared at the end. As they put the faces up of all of the people who had been disappeared and my uncle’s face came up. And I — in that moment, it was only then that the penny really dropped that he was one of them. I’ve always known his story but I haven’t really put two and two together. Even while watching the documentary, it wasn’t until the very end that I said that’s my uncle and it came obviously as a bigger shock to you than to me. But I still — yes, I realized at that point that having known about it, I still didn’t really know.

SREENIVASAN: Tell us about that. What was the story with the uncle in the first place for people who might not have seen the play?

DONNELLY: So my uncle, Eugene Simons, is my mother’s brother. Was disappeared on New Year’s Day in 1981 and his body was discovered three and a bit years later in a bog in county live in Ireland. And he was discovered by accident actually. But it became clear over the course of decades that followed that there were a number of people, I think about 16 or 17 people, who had also been disappeared most — mostly by the IRA and had been secretly buried and their families haven’t known what had happened to them/ And on top of that, what also happened was that there were rumors spread about those people to their families that they had been spotted in, you know, in other parts of Ireland or in England or even in America. And so it would keep the idea of the possibility of them being alive still in the heads of their families.

SREENIVASAN: Using hope almost to pick the scab.

DONNELLY: Absolutely.



SREENIVASAN: There’s a cost to this silence, the idea that her family didn’t discuss it, that you really tried to mine out and it cuts across generations.

BUTTERWORTH: At the time, I was really surprised. It was like coming into Laura’s consciousness as it was coming into mine. It struck me as very odd that that wasn’t a known fact to her and her family. And it’s only since I’ve got to know her family that when I got to know more and more about The Troubles, that it’s completely normal that would not have risen up into the unknown fact amongst the —

SREENIVASAN: What do you think it is that it’s not part of a central narrative to a family? Is it about shame? Is it about fear?

BUTTERWORTH: I remember the name of the Seamus Heaney poem but there’s a line in one — where he says, “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

DONNELLY: It’s something that just pervades Northern Ireland. It’s to do with self-preservation as much as it’s to do with shame and all the things that you mentioned there.

BUTTERWORTH: Of all the research that I’ve gone for this plan and all the experience I’ve had with Laura, I feel kind of struck actually by the — by what it is that they’ve had to go through, by how it’s affected both families, how it’s affected Laura’s family and thousands and thousands of families. And I think that Laura has normalized to how she — I think she just — one of the ways in which her generation has kind of survived this is to say that it’s not a big deal but it is a big deal.

SREENIVASAN: Did you feel a greater responsibility to this partly because this is your family? I mean did you have to feel like, oh, well, now he’s going to take this and make a play out of it, do I need to get permission? I mean —

DONNELLY: I felt a sense of responsibility to my mom. She was the only person that I really give a lot of thought to in that moment. And I discussed it with her and she was very happy for it to go ahead. And she’s immensely proud of the fact that it has become what it has become. So that was my main concern.

SREENIVASAN: And what about you? I mean you’re talking to not someone just as an actor but as a life partner. Are you like, “I can’t screw this up”?

BUTTERWORTH: Yes, that was an absolute nightmare. I think the play doesn’t include many actual, like identifiable details of your family’s experience. Yet what that family went through, how they responded, how disappearances, vanishings, just as you say, pick up the scab, don’t allow the normal grieving processes to begin. All of that is precisely what Laura’s family went through.

SREENIVASAN: You know we have a clip to set it up. This is a rural family and this is right around the harvest time that — this is a toast.


JAMES JOSEPH CARNEY: One day, it won’t be my name, it won’t be my lad. It will be James Joseph Carney. James Joseph Carney’s (INAUDIBLE).

QUINN CARNEY: When these 50 acres are yours and you’re stood where I am, your first harvest in, young and old at all sides, I want you to remember something, that a man who takes care of his family is a man who can look himself in the eye in the morning. And I hope you find a stronger rock as I have in your ma. To Mary.


CARNEY: Finally, on behalf of this entire clan, I’d like to thank Caitlin for this wonderful food and for everything she’s done for this family over the past 10 years. To Caitlin.



SREENIVASAN: You start to see all these different themes just in that little clip here. There’s a bit of a just a simple family story. There’s this national politics and loyalty and struggle story. And then there’s a complicated love story, right, which one as a director, which one is — or a playwright or an actor do you pick up on when you’re in these scenes.

DONNELL: You can’t act politics. You can’t — you know, there is no action in that. It’s just the background that they’re all existing and — but for her, the love story and the suppression of that love and the secrets that she keeps are what drives her through the entire three acts. It just makes sense. It’s just there and it feels like real life when you read it. So to just get up and do it seems to be enough but it really requires any real cool barring.

SREENIVASAN: There’s a clip I want to play. It really is one of the first scenes, if not the first scene in the play.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You’re on a ship with the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and, Led Zeppelin. It hits an iceberg. There’s only room in the lifeboat for you, plus one of those legendary combos, three seconds, go.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have three seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don’t need three seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You’d save Led Zeppelin.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just say the word.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Beatles, The Stones, they’re all going to drown.


SREENIVASAN: Later on in that scene, you kind of start to — as an audience where you’re seeing this intense flirtation happening and you kind of saying what’s going on here, you’re trying to figure this out, right. When you position that scene, it’s almost like that was something that was really middle to end of the play. But you’re starting — you’re giving me a sound bite something for me to grasp onto and this like this late night session that these two are having.

BUTTERWORTH: Yes. I think about half of my play start at the end of the night. Jerusalem does, Mojo does. When people have been up all night and then the action begins. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s an experience that I’ve had a lot. But it gets interesting when people are so sleep deprived when they —

SREENIVASAN: Is it brain — even if you’re not — alcohol, it’s sort of in a different state.

BUTTERWORTH: When they’ve crossed that barrier. But yes, I did want to start at the end. I did want you to fall in love with them in the first five minutes of the play. People blindfolds and dance around at the end of plays, not at the beginning.

SREENIVASAN: It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride to watch you from really seeing one until the end and your — oh my gosh, she’s carrying a lot of weight. And I wonder just as a viewer what — how exhausted you must be at the end of every performance to put yourself physically through that every day.

DONNELLY: Yes. I mean we were just discussing this very recently actually which is that I don’t think that I was aware, going into this Broadway run, quite how much it was going to cost me emotionally and physically, just energy levels. When I had done the run in London in the West End, I was pregnant the whole time. So — and I finished up at six months pregnant. So I put my exhaustion at that time down to pregnancy. I thought that that’s what it was. It wasn’t until I got here and started again that I realized that actually, I don’t think the pregnancy had anything to do with it. It was the play. The play is maybe hugely draining but the most satisfying thing that I could possibly do. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

SREENIVASAN: Who’s the ferryman in this? I mean is there? Hearken back to, you know, from Greek mythology onward. There’s always this person who’s carrying souls into the afterlife. And as I’m sitting there watching the play, I’m like well, they did call it the ferryman intentionally, right? Is there — why?

BUTTERWORTH: Well, I think it has that title because that passage around 400 lines into book six of (INAUDIBLE) deals with the idea that the most punished are those that are forbidden — that have been unburied and forbidden passage across this actually the icon. And so that idea that that is a forgotten despairing chronic state that it curses that knew the dead as well as the dead themselves just is an idea that is not, you know, it’s thousands of years old. It will be true in thousands of years’ time. It’s an idea that I’m sure that whoever dreamt up the campaign of vanishing people rather than dumping their bodies in the street would have been aware of.

SREENIVASAN: What’s the reception been like with members of your family who perhaps have longer memories of living through this era? I mean if they’ve come and seen this play or if they’ve read about it.

DONNELLY: Mostly hugely supportive. The nature of Northern Irish families who have been through traumas is that there’s a loss of like we were talking about the silence. There’s a lot of separation. There’s a lot of anger. And so there are huge elements, huge sections of my family that I have no contact with and haven’t done all my life. And that’s just to say that is to speak to the damage that the politics of Northern Ireland have done to people and families.

SREENIVASAN: Why do you think that resonates with an American audience here in New York?

BUTTERWORTH: Because I don’t think it’s specific to Northern Ireland. I think it’s intense in Northern Ireland. I think that every family who had like 20, you know, holidays to get through together. There’s just some like tense standoff, isn’t it? It’s like, you know, it goes both ways. It’s just right below the surface. All of this anger, the resentments, and beefs, and the stuff that people are laughingly curated over decades to present to one another a crisis. I think that that element of family life, the idea of things going unrecognized, things bubbling under is just a universal truth.

SREENIVASAN: And also just a production question, you’ve got a goose, a rabbit, a real baby. I think everyone in the crowd immediately starts to “Aww” when they realize that’s a real baby on the set. How do you pull that off?

BUTTERWORTH: I was as surprised as everyone how much it took. You know it’s very easy to write, he brings on a goose.

SREENIVASAN: Right. But the baby, how do you keep — stand-in babies?

BUTTERWORTH: That was one of the first. That was one of the first five days that I had was (INAUDIBLE) of lights going up in the stage and the baby being aligned on the stage. And I decided to put it after the first interval. There’s all kinds of things you can do to make people forget the interval. You know, there’s all kinds of tricks you can pull to make people forget how hard it was to get to the theater that night and how uncomfortable their sit is for example or how much they have to fork out for the ticket. There’s tricks that drop you into believing something is — believing in the illusion that theater is, that are available to you in the theater that aren’t on film and I love exploiting them. And I love the fact that if you walk a live goose onto a stage is different to what you want on film. No one gets monkeys on film but it reminds you of the real and — but also at the same time the sort of the hyper-real thing that is to witness something unfolding on the stage. It also allows for the sense that this is going to imminently go very wrong. And I think that that’s one of the most exciting things you can ever watch on the stage, that baby is going to malfunction, that goose is going to dot dot dot. That rat is going to drop around

DONNELLY: The rabbit leaped from his hands as he shows —

SREENIVASAN: I’d love to hear that. Go ahead.

DONNELLY: And half the actors on stage went, “Huh”. And it was just suddenly the whole team was completely electric. We were all having as tense a time as the audience were at that point and it was just brilliant.

SREENIVASAN: Mark Rylance once said to me that the thing he loved most about being on stage was that nothing could go wrong. And I — it took me ages to work out what he means. If that goose were to free itself from flapping to the audience and run down [13:55:00] the aisle and create mayhem, that would be worth paying for. What could be better?

SREENIVASAN: Jez Butterworth and Laura Donnelly, thank you so much.

DONNELLY: Thank you.


About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour looks back at the school shooting one year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with the playwright of “The Ferryman” and actress Laura Donnelly.