St John Ervine was sceptical about comedy, believing its popularity to be proportionate to a nation’s decadence. He would surely be heartened by the revival of his scrupulously joke-free tragedy John Ferguson. Considering that it was once a fully fledged Broadway hit, its subsequent neglect – last produced in England nearly a century ago by Nigel Playfair at the Hammersmith Lyric – is surprising.
Ervine may never had his more famous fellow Irishmen’s fortune in gaining the status of a brand by virtue of their distinctive voices. Still, on the evidence of this piece his embodying of idealogical positions is as humane as Shaw’s and his study of the effects of political and religious dogma on individuals’ happiness as acute as O’Casey’s. Indeed, there are moments in this bitter story of tenant-debt and strategic marriage in late nineteenth century Ulster when his subjects’ rhetoric sounds like a Unionist counterpart to the Republican Dubliners of Juno and the Paycock.
The title character is an ailing County Down farmer with money problems and a son, Andrew, who is helping out rather than pursuing his studies to become a minister. Ferguson Senior is a Biblical literalist who feels compelled to forgive his persecutors. Principal among these is his neighbour and mortgage holder Henry Witherow, who threatens to foreclose unless the Fergusons settle their debt with him. The regular, solvent but frankly wet young Jimmy Caesar will bail them out if Andrew’s highly appetising sister Hannah agrees to marry him.
There is another way out, involving salvation from America if only John’s brother can scrape the money together and keep the farm in the family. So there’s the moral poser, with Hannah in a similar pass to Claudio’s sister Isabella in Measure for Measure. Thanks to the loathsome Witherow the plot tips over into one of assault and revenge, with the Chekhovian shotgun-on-the-wall coming into the play and the police arriving to investigate a murder.
There are grave resonances behind all this. During that time, the 1880s, rural Ireland was undergoing enormous changes; a population down by a third, largely through mass emigration in the wake of the catastrophic famine in the middle of the century. Competition from abroad was pushing agriculture towards a crisis point and the power of landlords was unchecked by the reforms of the Land Act. As a tenant farmer your situation was perilous; you used whatever you could to get by, and sometimes the spotless beauty of a daughter had to be counted among those assets. If you were a believer of John Ferguson’s kind, then you were unable to get even with your wrongdoers since justice and retribution lay in the province of the Almighty.
When the play was premiered in Dublin, a year before the Easter Rising, Ervine had an excellent contact at the Abbey Theatre – himself. He was literary manager, a role which was one of many in an astonishingly versatile working life. There were not only the plays, including Mixed Marriage, which the Finborough also revived three years ago; there were substantial biographies of William Booth, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, drama criticism for The Observer and The Morning Star, and half a dozen novels.
To borrow a word from Ferguson’s vocabulary, the production is a small miracle; I refer to the sheer fact of its being on, with its cast of seven, its utterly believable set of sombre husbandry and bare flagged flooring, and to the fact that the theatre operates without subsidy. Director Emma Faulkner uses a traverse format, which raises the stakes by enabling you to watch those nosey onlookers just as if they were importunate neighbours – and you yourself no better.
Ciaran MacIntyre is remarkably sympathetic as the long-suffering John; as is Veronica Quilligan as the wife who has to endure his demanding stoicism. Powerful performances too from Zoe Rainey as the conflicted daughter Hannah, unable to see her mother’s life as a cautionary tale, and Alan Turkington as her brother, as proud but thwarted as the community that has produced him. Miniature place, major play.
Review by Alan Franks
John Ferguson at Finborough Theatre
Cast: Paul Lloyd as Henry Witherow and Sergeant Kernaghan, Ciaran McIntyre as John Ferguson, Veronica Quilligan as Sarah Ferguson, Zoe Rainey as Hannah Ferguson, Paul Reid as James Caesar, Alan Turkington as Andrew Ferguson, David Walshe as Clutie John
Tuesday, 20th May to Saturday, 14th June 2014
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm.
Sunday Matinees at 3.00pm.
Saturday Matinees 3.00pm (from 31st May 2014)
Friday 23rd May 2014