The buzz for Broadway’s The Ferryman has been strong since its original production at London’s Royal Court Theatre and has grown to a roar with the production’s transfer to Broadway.
What The Ferryman accomplishes is chemical, an emotional transformation that unravels delicately under the roof of the play’s patriarch Quinn Carney. Writer Jez Butterworth and director Sam Mendes masterfully create a moving snapshot of this Irish clan—a household busting at the seams with vitality—in an unprecedented work of drama, guts, and love. It will bowl you over.
When the play begins in the wee hours of the morning, the stillness of the house murmurs as calm before a storm audiences never see coming. When young Mercy bursts into the stone-walled kitchen, she blows the horn and sets off a domino effect of the Carney family preparing for their annual harvest feast (which will also welcome the arrival of their Corcoran cousins—more children). As more and more offspring bound down the rickety staircase centerpiece of the modest farm home—in an ideally modest design by Rob Howell—Mendes and his cast capture the essence of what it means to be an Irish family, close-quartered and close-knit.
As the youngest children Nunu, 11 (Brooklyn Shuck), Mercy, 9 (Willow McCarthy), and Honor, 7 (Matilda Lawler) shout and play, their elder sister Shena, 14 (Carla Langley) coddles their infant brother. As James Joseph (Niall Wright), the eldest, shoulders the responsibility of helping his father around the farm, he also does his best to keep his brother Michael, 15 (Fra Fee) in line. Oisin, 14 (Rob Malone) keeps to himself—the eighth child in a crowded house. The imaginary life in the upstairs, from whence the kids pour like an endless clown car, informs as much as the action downstairs. And when Shane, 17 (Tom Glynn-Carney), Diarmaid, 16 (Conor MacNeill), and Declan, 13 (Michael Quinton McArthur) arrive, emotions about the Irish climate and a search for identity ratchet up. Yet, these actors keep the play grounded.
It feels like a family; and, though it’s never stated outright, the air percolates with the notion that family is the most important thing.
In a play with 21 actors sharing the stage—ten of them playing characters aged 17 and under—we gathered the kids of Broadway’s The Ferryman (the elder who came over from London and the younger who joined in New York) to talk about their favorite moments in the show, the gestures they steal from each other to build those family ties, and the undeniable chemistry that makes the play tingle with reality.
The entire show revolves around the family dynamic. What was the audition process like? Did you do familial chemistry tests?
Fra: It was a really interesting audition process in that it wasn’t particularly conventional. I think all of us did self-tapes first and then out of that we were invited to meet Sam Mendes, but it wasn’t actually an audition. It was a general chat about how we responded to reading the play and our own experience of being Irish people. After that we did a read-through around the table, which was really wonderful because it didn’t feel like an audition. We were just telling the story of the play. And from that Sam and Jez were able to see how this family makeup was presented and where that chemistry was. Quite a lot of us were cast after that read-through.
Conor: We’d done several of those read-throughs with different setups.
Fra: It was a wonderful audition process in that it wasn’t your typical one. We were just reading the play.
Was it the same for you who joined the production in New York?
Willow: We had a regular audition process. We did a self-tape and then the second time we had two callbacks.
Brooklyn: They would take different kids and pair them with different kids.
Willow: Brooklyn and I went in for the first time.
Michael: I know—at least for the boys—they took us in and asked us to do our dialect.
Matilda: I did my first and second auditions myself and then my third one we were paired with people—I was not paired with any of you guys. Then I moved on to the last audition and we had Deb Hecht, our dialect coach, for the last two auditions.
Does it help to be around everyone who came over from the Royal Court to get the accent in your ear?
All: Yes! Definitely helps.
Brooklyn: That’s what Deb was saying when we were rehearsing with her is that when they came over it would be a lot easier for us to get into the rhythm and hear them.
In rehearsal, did you all do any bonding exercises?
Conor: We didn’t. We just rehearsed the play.
Willow: We should have done trust falls—that would have been so fun!
Conor: I think it was a time constraint, as well. We had two weeks to get it all.
Carla: There are 21 actors on the stage, so Sam was more focused on making sure no one was tripping over each other.
Conor: Sam Mendes is a genius at casting. He can see compatibility, I think. I’ve never worked with a cast like this before where everyone gets on incredibly well. He sees something in the way people fit together. There is a real family feel.
There is a lot going on in the offstage world, upstairs in the Carney house. What are some of the things you have “created” in terms of story of what your character and your siblings/cousins are doing up there?
Carla: I see her as a mini mother. I imagine she’s always a checking on baby Bobby and I’m making sure her little sisters stay out of mischief. In the spare time she has to herself, she would definitely be reading any pop magazine she can get her hands and listening to her favourite singer Adam Ant.
What you do on the stage helps us imagine what’s going on in the invisible upstairs. In backstage life, because it is a long show, in whose dressing room does everyone tend to congregate?
Rob: Me and Niall are in Dressing Room 16 and we’ve actually had to hang up some signs because I think certain members of the cast seems to think it’s somewhat of a green room. The sign says, “This is not an area for loitering,” but it is frequently ignored.
Does that just mean the two of you are most loved?
Fra: I think that’s exactly what it means. You should take it as a compliment, Rob.
Conor: They actually do have the only iPhone chargers in the building!
Rob: That is a lie.
Who ends up backstage at the same time?
Rob: Because we all have very different tracks, I know I’m on my own a lot.
Conor: That continues outside the theatre. [Laughs]
Rob: It really does.
Fra: At the top of Act 2 all the boys enter together, so we all have that moment together.
Conor: Me and you, Michael, have a lot of time together.
Willow: The younger girls all are offstage for almost the full last hour of the play, so we’re all backstage, and we like to play games and dance.
Do you feel like a family?
All: For sure. Yeah.
Willow: Brooklyn and Matilda and I fight like sisters. We bicker a lot.
Matilda: A lot. I’m always the one who’s like…they’re the fighters. And I tell them who wins the fight.
Niall: The referee.
All of your characters are quite distinct, who among you is the most like their character?
Rob: Niall Wright.
Fra: Niall Wright is JJ.
Conor: It’s true.
Do you feel that way Niall?
Niall: Sam’s very good at casting people and Irish people who can relate to bits of it. I come from a big family of six kids and I’m the youngest boy. So, clearly, eldest is a bit different. I think it’s just a credit to the writing. The distinct characters and the relationships... You talk about when we come down the stairs you know who everybody is.
Fra: And the casting. It’s cast incredibly well. Everyone is really well-suited to their characters.
Aside from the casting, what is it about the rehearsal space that Sam creates that helps you identify so easily with them?
Conor: Sam has an incredible ability at identifying what each individual actor needs and he will note to their needs, to their personality, to how they take things. Everybody is treated on an individual basis. Therefore, it makes you feel really wanted and understood, so you feel free to explore.
Fra: I agree.
Niall: I think he creates an atmosphere that you feel very safe, but he’s very, very in control. I’ve never been in a room where someone is so in control but effortlessly. He’s not swinging his authority, he’s just in control. It creates a lovely atmosphere to work.
Fra: I think one of the most important things any actor would say is that in order to explore things and find things and find who your character is is just feeling really safe in the rehearsal room. He sets up that atmosphere so brilliantly. We weren’t nervous to try things, and we didn’t feel embarrassed when we did things and we were wrong. That’s so important. Yes, Sam’s a legend.
There’s life to that house onstage. So much is happening all at once, but it’s so well directed that you know where your focus needs to be at any given moment. How difficult was that in rehearsal?
Niall: We actually blocked it before we did anything else. We actually staggered through the whole play with book in hand. He literally just moved people. To orchestrate so many people on the stage you have to have such an eye.
Fra: Ordinarily that type of approach would be really prescriptive and strange to be told where to stand, but because of the size of the piece and the amount of actors, it didn’t feel intrusive. It didn’t feel as though I was being forced to do anything. It was just a map, a blueprint of the play. Within that sort of structure you’re able to find your own thing. More than possibly other stuff that Sam has done, there was a real dramaturg on this play. Because there are so many different stories and different threads, it is important that the audience know where to focus on, and that was part of his directing on the play—making sure people follow the key points of the story. And when there are 21 people onstage it’s important to make sure the focus is at that point. That was very meticulously orchestrated.
Niall: Exits and entrances were one thing he focused on. Even when we were coming down the stairs, he changed that so much: what you were wearing, what you were putting on...
Fra: The energy changing.
You have three generations on this stage of the Carney-Corcoran clan. How much are you taking cues from the personalities of the actors who play your parents and your aunts and uncles. Do you think about taking a bit from your elders as if it were passed down in your DNA?
Conor: It’s kind of in the writing. For instance, when Muldoon comes in Aunt Pat says, “Mr. Muldoon it’s an honor to meet you.” And then I repeat that four lines later, “Mr. Muldoon it’s an honor.” That [reverence].
Brooklyn: It’s also in the movement. Like posture or taking somebody’s walk.
Matilda: I’ve taken Brooklyn’s walk.
Willow: There was one time when Matilda was like, “Brooklyn, how do you stand?” And then she took that.
Fra: The Aunt Pat thing is interesting because she’s so full of anger and I think that can’t go unnoticed. Perhaps why it’s not talked about [onstage] is because Quinn is trying to maintain peace over his household. It’s very likely that JJ and Michael talk about what Aunt Pat is discussing up in their bedroom. That informs their take and what is happening in the household. I think it’s all unwritten that type of thing, but it absolutely does inform the characters. And, similarly, I think [my character] Michael takes on some of Uncle Pat’s jovial energy and trying to lighten the mood a lot. He probably got that from him.
Niall: Likewise, I think JJ looks up to his dad a lot and carries Quinn’s energy.
Brooklyn: It’s also Caitlin and Mary, I see a little bit of their posture and incorporate that because I’m around them the most.
If you could play a different Carney or Corcoran, who would you play?
Conor: Caitlin Carney.
Carla: Tom Kettle.
Rob: Uncle Pat.
Willow: Aunt Pat.
Conor: Oh you’d be brilliant!
Niall: You’d be a brilliant Mary.
Fra: I know.
Matilda: I would do a lot. I would do Cait, Aunt Pat, or Shane.
Michael: I would do Quinn or Diarmaid or Shane.
Fra: Solid turns everyone.
I need to know why everyone expressed a resounding consensus about Fra as Mary.
Conor: There’s a beautiful decay to Fra. [Laughs]
Fra: I just love the scene that Mary has to do at the end. It’s my favorite part of the play. It’s devastating, but I love it.
What is your favorite moment—whether you’re in it or you watch it?
Michael: Mine is probably the feast because it’s such a happy moment and then Muldoon comes in and Oisin... and everything falls apart. That’s when the play turns to a darker side and the lightheartedness of the family and the harvest goes away. Behind all the dancing and happiness I think it’s a meaningful moment as a last calm before the storm.
Matilda: That would be the scene that I like the most.
Willow: I like the dance. It’s fun to kick and jump.
Brooklyn: I like the feast, but all of Act 3 is kind of cool because it focuses on something different than what we experience.
Do you all actually eat?
Matilda: I do!
Willow: Me and Michael always argue over the pea spoon because we want more peas. The peas are so good! But [back to the scenes] I like the Tom Kettle scene, too. It’s so sad.
All: Ohhhhh yes.
Willow: It’s so sweet and sad. I think Carla would make a good Tom Kettle.
Niall: I was going to say the proposal—that’s just heartbreaking. I would see that in rehearsal sometimes and just cry my eyes out. The bit that I enjoy that I’m in is the top of Act 3, the boys bit.
Carla: I love the end. I think the ending is so killer. That last couple of minutes where it just goes boom, boom, boom and then BOOM and the lights go down and the audience is like, “Ooooh.” And, of course, I like the top of Act 2! [Where Shena plays with her infant brother.]
Conor: I think my favorite scene to watch is when the three women are onstage, Aunt Pat and Caitlin and Mary are left alone for the first time and she tells the story. I love their acting there. I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing, as well.
Is there a lesson you’ve learned from your elder castmates?
Brooklyn: Watching the cast do their work teaches you so much.
Carla: Working with actors who are older and have been working in the industry for longer, [I learned] “Stand up for yourself.”
Conor: Service the story and not your character. It’s quite important with this one in particular because it’s an ensemble piece.
Willow: I think that the cool thing about this show is there are 21 people, but there’s no same character. In some ensemble pieces there is a dancing group and they don’t have different personalities. Nobody is similar in this show.
Can you feel the audience on the journey with you?
Conor: There’s an incredible moment at the end—something happens and when it happens I’m backstage and I can hear them go “oooh.” It’s actually not that vocal, it’s the sounds of a thousand breaths leaving the body at the same time.
Brooklyn: Everyone is so invested.
You guys only have until February 19 to be together, when the cast changes for the rest of the run. What are you taking with you from the experience? What are you going to miss the most?
Willow: The Irish people! It’s going to be like where are the Irish accents backstage?
Conor: The gang. I’ll miss seeing everybody. They’re such brilliant people.
Brooklyn: We got so lucky with such a good group of people that work so well together that it’s going to be very hard to say goodbye.
Carla: The people and my babies. Just the memory of it all.
Fra: Oh God. Where to begin? It’s quite simply been the greatest gift of my life to be doing this. I’ll always be comparing. Nothing could possibly be as good as this in terms of the whole experience. I’m just going to take away a very significant memory. What do you say? It’s been so special. We’ve genuinely become a family unit.
Look inside Playbill’s full photo shoot with the “kids” from the cast of The Ferryman: