NEW YORK (AP) — Jez Butterworth tackles Northern Ireland’s Troubles in “The Ferryman,” which has received nine Tony nominations.
The playwright and director admits he was both compelled and reluctant to write his play, which centers on a tragedy involving the family of his romantic partner, actor Laura Donnelly, in the years when the outlawed Irish Republican Army was trying to overthrow British rule.
“I’d wanted to write a play about harvest and about a large family for some time, but that’s only half of the thing I need to have to bolt onto another half to make a play. It wasn’t till I met Laura Donnelly and learned her family history with the disappeared that the two halves came together,” Butterworth said.
But Donnelly, nominated for a Tony for her role in the play, says Butterworth had to overcome some hurdles before he committed to the story.
“It was over a few years and we talked about it on and off and I know that he was reluctant to write it, because he’s reluctant to write most plays. But he also, just knowing that he was an Englishman approaching this subject and approaching not only an Irish story, but one so close to me — It’s not something he had done before, write his partner’s family into something. And so, it was a long and quite slow and quite quiet process,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly also won an Olivier for her performance in London, where it won the award for best new play.
Set in Derry in 1981, the play tells the story of a former Irish Republican Army activist turned farmer, who learns that his brother’s body has been uncovered, nearly a decade after he went missing.
It was inspired by the similar circumstance surrounding the murder and discovery of Donnelly’s uncle’s body.
“I just thought it’s not very often that you get to tell stories that are so important to you personally,” she said. “And I find that as a member of my family, and also as an Irish person, somebody who grew up at the time of this play … they’re not stories that get told very often.”
“It felt like a huge opportunity. And it felt like an opportunity for my family also to have a bit of closure over what had happened in regard to my uncle,” Donnelly said.
The three-hour plus play tells the story of farmer Quinn Carney, played by Tony nominee Paddy Considine, and his sister-in-law Caitlin, played by Donnelly. She’s lived with the family after her husband, an alleged informer, went missing in 1972.
During the annual harvest, news comes that the body has been discovered in a bog, and the IRA wants to make sure the family doesn’t blame its militants.
Donnelly had the rare experience of being a part of Butterworth’s process from the beginning.
“I always knew that that was going to involve stories from my life, my family’s lives. And that was something that really excited me from day one,” she said.
The Tony Awards take place Sunday in New York and will be broadcast live on CBS.