In 2009, Jez Butterworth wrote ‘Jerusalem’, the greatest play of the twenty-first century. The years since have seen him pen a cryptic ghost story (2012’s ‘The River’, which only played in the Royal Court’s tiny upstairs theatre), a handful of screenplays (notably co-writing ‘Spectre’, the last James Bond film) and his new masterpiece ‘The Ferryman’, a shattering, multi-tiered tragedy set in Northern Ireland in 1981. Affable and bearish, Butterworth rarely gives interviews and blows me off the first time we’re supposed to do this. But when we do sit down, he’s affability itself. Arguably Britain’s most successful living playwright, he seems like a regular bloke, as baffled as anyone else as to how he writes his extraordinary plays.
The story out there is that ‘The Ferryman’ was inspired by actor Laura Donnelly – who stars in the play – telling you about her uncle’s disappearance during The Troubles. Is it as simple as that?
‘The key moment was attending two of the funerals of the Disappeared – I was invited by Laura’s mother, it wasn’t research or anything. One of them had been almost 17, and these guys at the funeral were his schoolfriends who were now in their late fifties. Their lives had moved on and his had stopped and it haunted me. Coming back from Belfast after those funerals I couldn’t stop thinking about the pain of disappearance and at that point everything started having that gravitational pull and suddenly you look up and it’s like there’s a planet there.’
Your parents were Irish – had you always wanted to write an Irish play?
‘No, not at all. I mean, I don’t consider myself Irish – I don’t know what I consider myself. It’s not an Irish play, any more than “Hamlet” is a Danish play… I don’t get plays coming to me often enough to be very choosy about who I let in.’
Laura Donnelly (Caitlin Carney) and Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney) © Johan Persson.
That sounds almost like you’re saying you don’t write your own work.
‘It’s very odd. I kind of have a sense of being surrounded by all the people in the play and I’m trying to write it all down. It’s like I’m just given the transcripts.’
It wasn’t the same for ‘Spectre’, surely?
‘It’s different. With Bond there was something about “Casino Royale” that I was just jealous of. I thought: That’s good, that’s a really good way to stop Bond being shit, like it had been. The idea that you’d go from surfing tsunamis pre-credits to drowning somebody in the sink in black and white – it was surely heading off down the right track and I wanted to get involved.’
The ending of ‘The Ferryman’ is absolutely shocking…
‘I read a book [‘Lost Lives’] which has some 3,000 stories of people murdered in The Troubles and each one is a version of the ending of this play. If the play had avoided that sudden rush of violence it would be pulling its punches. This is a tragedy and tragedies end with blood on the stage.’
‘The Ferryman’ did a month at the Royal Court before hitting the West End – do you have a sentimental attachment to the place?
‘I think the room in my head is shaped like the Royal Court. It’s sort of what I’ve always known, I’m always excited to go back. Having said that it was the same with “Jerusalem”, it works better in a bigger space – both plays have a bonfire quality to them. The quality of silence when 1,000 people are listening to a story… it’s just better, bigger.’
Fra Fee (Michael Carney), Carla Langley (Shena Carney), Niall Wright (JJ Carney), Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney), Sophia Ally (Honor Carney), Michael McCarthy (Declan Corcoran), John Hodgkinson (Tom Kettle), Genevieve O’Reilly (Mary Carney) and Rob Malone (Oisin Carney) © Johan Persson.
Is ‘Jerusalem’ ever coming back? Will Mark Rylance be in it?
[Very mischievous grin] ‘I’d love Mark to do it again. We talked about it recently… you know we’re coming up soon to the tenth anniversary aren’t we? Eighteen months.’
It doesn’t matter that he’s older?
‘I think that he’d be perfect for that role for at least another 170 years. I would absolutely unequivocally adore it if he wanted to do it again. I’m sure it would be as exciting as it was the first time; in many ways more exciting.’
There are often huge gaps between your plays – is there another one coming?
‘I wish fervently to write more plays. Imagine if a football player like Alexis Sanchez could only sometimes play football, imagine how frustrating that would be.’
That sounds exactly what it must be like being Wayne Rooney.
‘Ha, exactly! Sometimes there’s nothing going on there and sometimes he can tap into whatever he can sometimes tap into. So it’s like that for me on a larger, longer scale. And I don’t know if there’s more I can do to make it happen. It’s becoming a more and more mysterious process.’
‘The Ferryman’ is at the Gielgud Theatre until Jan 6 2018.