Playwright Jez Butterworth spills all his secrets in ‘The Ferryman’

//Playwright Jez Butterworth spills all his secrets in ‘The Ferryman’
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Playwright Jez Butterworth spills all his secrets in ‘The Ferryman’

The Tony front-runner talks about crafting his three-hour rural family epic from his own experience and why it has captured New York audiences.

Jez Butterworth has a small caveat for this interview: He doesn’t think his work wants to be talked about. The writer is nominated for his second Tony Award for best play for The Ferryman, a vigorous family epic set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the Troubles. The production opened on Broadway in the fall to rave reviews, after a successful run in London’s West End, where it won the 2018 Olivier Award for best new play. But Butterworth worries that if he talks about his plays, he won’t get the opportunity to write another one.

“It’s like a private thing between the theater and me,” says Butterworth, who has a parallel career as a screenwriter, with eclectic credits ranging from the Tom Cruise action sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow to the James Brown biodrama Get on Up, from the Whitey Bulger true-crime saga Black Mass to the 007 thriller, Spectre. “I can feel them, by them I mean the plays, just going, ‘Shut the fuck up. We’re not going to give you another one.'”

But Butterworth won’t listen to the negative voices today. “There’s so many other elements involved in a production like this. So to give it life and breath, I’ve got to say something about it,” he says. “So my approach is to be completely unguarded and just say whatever I feel is true about it, because if the plays have a problem with that, then fuck ’em.”

You’ve been thinking about writing a play about the Disappeared and the Troubles for a long time. When you first started mulling over the idea, did you know about Laura’s uncle?

No. I’d wanted to write a play about a big family, and to set it at harvest time. The plan to write something set in that kind of atmosphere or that kind of turning of the year predated even meeting Laura. I always need one half of a story to clip onto the other half of a story before it works. I could write 20 plays set in a kitchen at harvest, but they wouldn’t mean anything. You need this other element. The whole thing with disappearance affected me way more than it affected Laura, I mean just emotionally, in terms of it haunting me.

Do you remember where you were at the time of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes?


I know exactly where I was. I remember the whole unfolding of the deaths of the 10 hunger strikers so clearly, I would have been 11 years old living in Hertfordshire in a very small house with seven people. And each time a hunger striker died, it was an event. It was noted.

Did you talk to Laura’s family when you were writing the play?

Talking to the Northern Irish about their feelings is an extraordinary experience because, for my money, it involves so much reflection and so many attempts to avoid the conversation, but then as soon as you get going it won’t stop.

Joan Marcus Paddy Considine (center) and cast of The Ferryman

Was your intention always to write the play for Laura?

When we worked on The River, I thought that Laura was an extraordinary talent, and in a really specific way. For me, all drama is about dignity. I don’t think we really care whether people live or die; we care about their dignity as such. As soon as that’s the case, then you really look through your fingers. It struck me really early on that Laura is a bellwether for dignity. She can communicate to the audience when she’s trying to hang onto it, when she’s losing it, when it’s gone, when she tries to get it back. The best actors do that, and it seemed so clear that that was what she was capable of doing. So I was hungry to write something for her where she got to do all of that. But, and this is from the heart, for my own selfish reasons, that she was the right person to play the part I had in mind. No one gets a free ride. And had she been not right for it, and had I not been right about her, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. No one would care. It’s all what she’s been able to do and show on the stage. We very rarely talk about it. We’ve probably had about four conversations about this play ever.

You also mentioned you were nervous about writing this play because you’re English.

Not nervous, like sort of psychotic to attempt it. I mean why would you do that?

People write about experiences that aren’t their own all the time.

That’s been my excuse from the beginning. If Shakespeare had to stick to plays set in Stratford-upon-Avon, we would have been swiftly bored. It’s just the political thing. It’s just the fact that if there is an Irish situation, it’s the fault of the English. Just as simple as that. We’ve actually encountered very little choppy water on that, but it’s available as an idea. If someone wants to think, “Why is this person writing that, they’re barely half Irish.”

Do you have Irish heritage?

Three of my grandparents are Irish. My mother’s name is Shena Malone. And there was an extended family situation that I’ve based the entire story on. I mean there isn’t really a thing that happens in this play that isn’t based on stuff that happened to me or around me as I was growing up. For me, plays are part confession and part cries for help. And so what better time to say, “This happened and this happened and this is what I’m afraid of. This is the source of my shame.”

What are some of the parts that are your own?

All of the names of the young girls in it are the names of my mother’s sisters and my mother. The grandmothers are both named after my grandmothers. My grandmother slowly stretched out in the corner of our kitchen for years and so she would phase in and out. Once I get going and write, it’s a bit like a bonfire that you can just chuck stuff on and watch it blow up.

Most of your plays happen over a short, fixed amount of time. Is that a structure you like?

I don’t like to do any of this. For some reason, a play for me happens in one place. I think almost all seven plays that I’ve written all happen in one place. And over about 24 hours. I mean that’s the way they used to do them.

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By |May 13th, 2019|Theater|0 Comments

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