Review Round-up: Raves flood in for River
Tickets are available online at 9am the day of performances, with an allocation being sold at the Royal Court box office an hour later.
Jez Butterworth's new play does not lend itself easily to analysis, or indeed summary. But it's as taut as a wire and as tense as a thriller... The mood is heavy with foreboding, but the prime purpose here is the grappling to the floor of the mystical pleasures and significance of fly fishing... This is one of those rare plays where nothing can be divulged without harming the individual’s response within a breath-holding audience, even allowing for the absurdity of the play being so hard to get into. It’s best to enjoy the spirit of the fish, and the sport, and the feelings of fate and of fear that are described by all three characters... It’s not as pretentious as it may sound; for the play is finally about feeling, and comprehensibly so, though still very dead-of-night strange and disturbing.
I spy a danger for the theatre in a new form of chic exclusivity. Because everyone wants to see Jez Butterworth's first new play since Jerusalem and because space is limited at the Theatre Upstairs, tickets are hard to come by. You either have to go online or queue at the box office first thing. Although that may preclude potential customers, Butterworth's play undeniably gains from intimacy. At 80 minutes, it is strange, eerie, tense and, on a single viewing, slightly unfathomable... West's character is a reclusive loner who invites each new woman to share his passion for trout fishing, declares his love for them but, inevitably disappointed, seeks to memorialise them through a drawing. Far from being a hymn to nature, the play is about the rooted solitude of a man who has subordinated his love for people to the more arcane pursuit of sea trout... But the play kept me on tenterhooks and Ian Rickson's production is finely calibrated.
If you did want to make comparisons with Jerusalem you could say that the longer play was violent dynamite-fishing, a great brawling splash throwing up all manner of deep monsters, whereas this is delicate: a fly-fisherman’s piece of trickery, ripples and reflections. Its iridescent beauty and menacing hook hover just out of reach, so that we snap breathlessly up towards meaning, half-hungry, half-afraid... Butterworth’s debt to Pinter is apparent in the building unease, the questions answered with long statements and stories, the sense of a psychological trap around West and two women who almost become one. But there is no Pinteresque bullying and rage: wonder and beauty suffuse it even as it darkens, at a pace almost musical under Ian Rickson’s direction... Extraordinary.
The characters are nameless, and the story is the sort of twisty puzzle that critics are often scolded for ruining with spoilers. Suffice it to say that it is bewitchingly strange – watery and wild but deftly crafted... West’s performance is dense and hefty. He suggests that his character is a romantic but also a fantasist. In one gorgeous, wordless scene he prepares a trout for the oven, turning some basic culinary business into a throbbing episode of foreplay... The River is a chamber piece, better suited to the upstairs studio space at the Royal Court than a larger stage. Still, it’s a shame that more people won’t get to see this absorbing play, which is subtly eloquent about duplicity, memory, myth-making and the theatrical nature of relationships.
Jerusalem was the theatrical equivalent of a mighty concerto, with Rylance as the thrilling soloist and the rest of the cast as his crack supporting musicians. In contrast The River is like a subtly crafted piece of chamber music. It is teasing, haunting and hushed, with just three speaking roles for unnamed characters. It is also damnably difficult to write about as there is a mystery at its heart that I must not reveal... West suggests darker depths beneath the central character’s apparently innocent, love-struck enthusiasm, and makes Butterworth’s thrilling nature writing really sing. And there are two neatly defined and contrasting performances from Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly as the two women.... The River may not achieve the knockout impact of Jerusalem, but this subtle, troubling piece is likely to nag away in the memory of all who see it.
It'd be over-simplifying the play's ambiguities to call it a ghost story, but Rickson's production certainly aims to chill (if it's a coincidence it's playing over Halloween, it's a happy one)... The River is a swirling mist of memory, magical realism and hinted-at folklore, bound by some terrific acting and the gorgeous bucolic lyricism of Butterworth's language. What it all means will be up to your personal interpretation... And as with Jerusalem its strangeness is sugared by a lot of very good jokes (most of them about fishing) and a superb performance from its lead man. West's overgrown, socially inept boy scout is awkward charm personified, yet by the end one feels frightened by him without quite being able to say why.
Hot playwright Jez Butterworth may have hooked another winner but his potent new play is showing in such a tiny studio that few will be able to catch it... Mr Butterworth’s last success was Jerusalem, set in darkest Wiltshire. He is good at confronting his urban audiences with vistas of nature. Away from concrete, man reverts to something more feral. How much more interesting it is, as a theatregoer, to hear talk about river pools and highland gorges - and even fishing tackle - than to be subjected to the usual cityscape cliches... On stage Mr West is brilliantly liquid. I wish he would not pronounce 'lure' in an American manner but otherwise his performance is faultless.
Short of setting himself on fire in the Royal Albert Hall, it’s hard to see what Jez Butterworth could have done as an encore commensurate with the stonking transatlantic triumph of Jerusalem... the first thing I should say, having now seen Ian Rickson’s spellbinding, exquisitely modulated production, is that getting into The River is well worth any additional hassle you may have to go through with the booking. Lyrical and tricksy, occasionally droll and ultimately desolating, this intimate three-hander unfolds like a tantalising cross between a piece of deeply felt poetry and a sleight-of-hand puzzle... In its pacing, Rickson’s production is beautifully responsive to the musicality of the play’s patterning and Dominic West turns in a compellingly layered performance as the Man.