Interview with The Ferryman star Laura Donnelly

Laura Donnelly

The Ferryman is making waves in New York City! Jez Butterworth's epic family drama, set in 1981 amidst the political unrest known as 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland, became an unstoppable juggernaut of live theatre during its celebrated life in London. After becoming the fastest-selling show in the history of the Royal Court Theatre and transferring to the West End for an extended, almost-year-long run, The Ferryman took home the Olivier Award for "Best New Play" earlier this year, as well as "Best Director" for Sam Mendes and "Best Actress" for Laura Donnelly.

Ms. Donnelly's award seems especially fitting as it was her own family history that was the inspiration for Mr. Butterworth's play and we recently caught up with the leading lady from Belfast, Northern Ireland, now reprising her role as Caitlin Carney at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. She spoke openly about the murder of her uncle in 1981 during 'The Troubles,' about her childhood experiences with Irish mythology and about sharing the stage with unpredictable animals and babies in The Ferryman...


Last time we saw you on Broadway, you were starring in another one of Jez Butterworth’s plays, The River, but the productions couldn’t be more different. In The River in 2014, you were appearing with just two other actors – albeit one of them was Hugh Jackman – and now in The Ferryman, you are part of a gigantic ensemble cast. How have your two Broadway experiences compared so far?

Well, in terms of the productions, they couldn’t be more opposite. But both times I’ve been out here, I’ve really loved the whole buzz that exists around Broadway. I love the audiences in particular. I think the audiences out here are just great! They are – dare I say it – slightly better than in the UK. That’s why I was so excited to bring The Ferryman out here, having been here with The River, I know what the audiences’ responses are like. The responses are bigger out here. I knew this play would create some massive responses and it has done. It’s been such a great pleasure.

Hugh Jackman & Laura Donnelly in The River
(Photo by Richard Termine)

The Ferryman obviously had such unprecedented success over in London. Was everyone extremely confident that the play would resonate just as loudly in New York?

We all certainly believe in the play’s ability to speak to anyone, no matter where they’re from. We’ve all been in love with this play as a cast since Day 1. So, we knew it had the potential to do that. But at the same time, with Broadway, you never know. It’s always such a big gamble taking any play over from the UK to here because sometimes, for whatever reason, there are magic ingredients that work on one side of the pond and they just don’t work on the other. You can never quite put your finger on why that is. Yes, we were confident and we knew we have something very special, but still nervous in case it doesn’t go down that well. Broadway can be a very harsh place to be, if things aren’t going well for you. But we were always hopeful.

At the matinee performance I attended, the lady next to me turned to me during the first intermission and asked: “Why do they [the Irish] hate the English so much?” Have you also encountered theatregoers here that are completely unaware of the political and historical background of The Ferryman?

Certainly I haven’t had an experience like that yet and the responses from the Americans have been wonderful. I don’t know whether they’ve had any prior knowledge of it or whether they’ve understood the intricacies of the politics of it. Probably a lot of the time, they haven’t. But I think the strength of the play is that you don’t need to know. People may not understand every tiny detail but they will understand the human element of it. The biggest element of this play is the part that applies universally. I think anyone can relate to a story that is about love, loss, grief, and family. These are all things that the Carney family in this play are dealing with. The themes are universal and the politics is just a small element of it.

Laura Donnelly in The Ferryman
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s also a beautifully lyrical, mythical element to the play, where Jez delves into Irish mythology in his writing. I guess that was equally appealing to you?

Very much so. For two reasons. Firstly, that element of Jez’s writing has always appealed to me. The first play I saw of his was Jerusalem and it was so loud and clear within that play and then it’s equally there in The River and that’s why I enjoyed performing The River so much. When I read The Ferryman, it seemed to have his stamp of the mystical all over it. I adore that. It seems to be something quite unique these days. You know it’s a Jez Butterworth play by it. The other reason I love it is because my own childhood was steeped in that. I was told stories like it and I got to perform in “Irish Ballets” – which was the term coined by my teacher, who created it. As a child, I was doing a version of ballet that told all the myths and legends of Ireland. I was hugely into them as a child. That was such a large part of my childhood experience that captured my imagination and that drove me to be on stage. It feels like it’s really come full-circle to be in a production now that brings that element into the story.

Now, you’ve given Jez a lot of credit there, but is it fair to say that without you, there’d be no Ferryman? I’m of course referring to your Uncle Eugene as one of ‘The Disappeared’. Would you mind telling us about him and how that led to the conversation with Jez?

Sure. At the very beginning, Jez and I were watching a documentary about ‘The Disappeared’ in Northern Ireland. We were in London at the time. I had watched the full documentary without putting two and two together and realizing the link with my uncle. It wasn’t until they showed all the faces of each of ‘The Disappeared’ at the end of the documentary and my uncle’s face flashed up. At the same time that I hadn’t put two and two together, it also didn’t come as a massive shock to me either. That’s an odd characteristic of being from Northern Ireland where these kinda things can be known to you and not known to you at the same time. So, I said: “That’s my uncle.” Jez was much more shocked, obviously, than I was. He didn’t have that sort of history and experience in his upbringing. We chatted about it and I told him about my family history. My mother’s brother, Eugene, was one of ‘The Disappeared’. He was murdered in 1981 and he was found – luckily only three years later – in a bog. He was found by accident. This made us look into other stories of ‘The Disappeared’ and their families were waiting for a long, long time to find their bodies. Some of them are still waiting. A short while later, we were going to a funeral of two of ‘The Disappeared’. My Mum would always go to their funerals and had asked me to go with her as there were two funerals in a row and she didn’t think she’d necessarily have the strength to handle them both on her own. So, Jez and I both went along and there was something about sitting in that church and witnessing it. A 17-year old boy had gone missing and all his friends and family were sat at the front of the church and all trying to mourn. They were all in their 60’s. They’d waited all this time to find out what had happened to this boy. They had children and grandchildren and there was such a sense of loss. It wasn’t possible to answer what had happened to this boy and – in the catholic church – where his soul had been for all this time. That was what sparked all these questions for Jez. It also started to bring up haunted feelings about disappearances in his own life and his own family.

Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Sean Frank Coffey & Paddy Considine in The Ferryman
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

On a lighter note, I’m sure everyone is always asking you about working with the geese, rabbits and babies on stage. People always say: “Never work with children or animals” and we were just wondering if there have been any mishaps on stage so far in New York or over in London?

Yes! (Laughs) I think one of the best ones was in London when our Tom Kettle was taking the goose offstage and the goose laid an egg… into his hand! He caught it! Because they were on their way offstage, nobody in the audience noticed, but we all noticed and the goose made an almighty noise before she did it! We were all trying to control ourselves, but we were killing ourselves, laughing on stage and the audience had no idea why. It was insane… (Laughs)

So, the noise was like a labor pains-induced honking?

(Laughs) Exactly! It was the loudest honk the goose had ever done! There were a few times actually when she laid an egg, but that was the first time she did it onstage.

I would have loved it to happen centre stage and hear Tom Kettle improvise his way out of that one…

Absolutely! And the Caitlin [Carney] would have had to clean it all up because it would have smashed on the flagstones and that would’ve been the rest of my Act I. Those things, when they happen, are just funny. Having the live animals and babies presents an element of danger because it’s completely unpredictable and no amount of rehearsal can change that. It makes it alive and you can feel the electricity amongst the audience and for us as well. Those are the moments – when the baby or the animals are onstage – where we don’t know which way it’s going to go either. We feel connected to the audience in those moments because we’re all experiencing something completely spontaneous and alive.

So, in summary, apart from those spontaneous livestock moments, what can New York audiences expect from a trip to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre to see The Ferryman?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the greatest theatrical experiences you will ever have. It’s an absolutely mind-blowingly brilliant play and it’s performed by a huge cast with such energy. I don’t think it’s like anything anybody has seen on the Broadway stage for a long, long time. If you miss it, you’ll really regret it down the line.

Laura Donnelly in Interview
(Photo by Angela Yamarone)

The Ferryman Tickets are available now for performances through to February 17, 2019.