As soon as the lights give way at the Finborough Theatre, the audience is transported to a bleak country. A beautifully minimal set, painted in greys and charcoal evoke the hardship of Ulster in the late 1800s. With nothing more than a few chairs and a wooden table, the audience is met with the austerity in which these characters live in.
Director Emma Faulkner takes on this great work by St. John Ervine in the first UK production of a hundred years. John Ferguson was first performed in Dublin at the Abbey Theatre in 1915, when Ervine worked as the literary manager. Though a revival of a centennial play, Faulkner finds great relevance in this piece, forcing the audience to deal with difficult questions as pertinent today as they were in 1915.
Ciaran McIntyre brings the title character to life with such unparalleled conviction. John is a heart-breaking firm believer in the words of the Bible; so much does his devotion consume him that he allows himself to become a passive participant in his life. Leaving all up to the ‘will of God’, this sickly aging man is about to lose everything he owns. His lack of agency has adverse effects on his family.
Sarah his wife, has stood by him their whole marriage, but does not share an absolute faith in the words of the apostles. Sarah, like the audience, realises that John’s faith has blindsided him from the gravity of their plight. His inaction will cost them the house she has known since being a young bride, and she makes it her mission to ensure they keep their life intact. Veronica Quilligan’s take on Sarah is meticulously mapped out. She dutifully plays the supporting wife, allowing John to have his faith, but as the drama unfolds her anger and passion bubble over till she can no longer remain silent.
In a turn of faith, it is the two children played by Zoe Rainey and Alan Turkington that end up using religion in a redeeming manner. Zoe Rainey plays the role of Hannah, the spitfire daughter, who forces herself to take local grocer Jimmy Caesar’s hand in marriage to save the family farm. Hannah goes as long as she can before she is forced to admit she does not love Jimmy. But Hannah seems a pawn in her mother’s scheme to secure the mortgage on the house. Even after the selfish and soulless Henry Witherow rapes Hannah, all the blame is put back on the daughter. Sarah coldly says to a gasping audience, “This is all your doing.”
The children know Jimmy Caesar will be charged and hung for the death of Witherow if Andrew does not turn himself in. Yet, their parents are willing to overlook Andrew’s crime if it means another man can die in Andrew’s place. Andrew, unlike his father, is able to properly discern doctrine and knows he must pay for his actions, so that an innocent man might live.
Sarah cannot forgive Hannah after Andrew, her brother, is forced to turn himself in for avenging Hannah’s rape. Sarah would rather steal away with her son to a new land than stay with her husband or daughter. In a tragic climax, Sarah evokes images of Mary desperately pleading for her son Jesus’ salvation during the Passion. But, as it is written in scripture for Jesus, Andrew too must be put to death.
Every character is fraught with doubt and passivity at some point in the play, using religion when and how it benefits them. They allow doctrine to relieve their inaction or to forgive their wrongdoing. As the Fergusons deal with losing their home and then the rape of their daughter Hannah, one must question: why this family? Why all this hardship? But, as John concedes by the play’s end it is simply God’s will and he must return to the Bible to find solace and comfort as the world around him continues to break into millions of bloodied fragments.
This play forces the audience to deal with the bleak and unfair nature of life, but if you venture out to the Finborough you will not be disappointed by this class-act production that shows the complexities of the human soul and how far one man will go to maintain his faith.
John Ferguson is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 14 June. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.