"I will be out there looking for you."-- The Man, The River
Jez Butterworth's new play The River fit nicely into my existential musings and the sensuous, intimacy of the small-scale work was a dramatic departure from the epic nature of his last play Jerusalem. Set in a fishing cabin in the woods an avid fisherman wants to share his passion with a new girlfriend. And maybe today is the day he has said "I love you." And maybe not everyone in the room is being honest with each other. The play starts with an open door, daylight pouring through it, and a woman singing off stage.
Directed by Ian Rickson with design by Ultz (the same creative team as
Jerusalem), the play was well-suited to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space at
the Royal Court which provided for a small stage and an audience in
close proximity to the action. From the natural soundscape, to the dim
lighting, to the creaking of the floorboards, the audience cannot help
but be taken in by the sensations the space creates. The writing and performances created a sense of anticipation and ultimately unease as the entire play seems to be structured around what you will and will not be shown. What takes place off-stage being equally important, at least to the characters, to the on-stage action. It's like trying to watch the conversation between a couple on a subway platform across from you--maybe passing trains keep interrupting and you can hear pieces of the conversation--you know something pivotal is happening but you cannot know for sure exactly what.
It's impossible to talk about the play without some bit of spoiling the discoveries it has to offer and they are discoveries I enjoyed not knowing until after so...STOP IF YOU DON'T WANT TO READ SPOILERS. STOP READING. Did you stop. Ok.
Occasionally the fisherman is speaking to his girlfriend who is off-stage. When she returns, it is an entirely different actress and becomes clear an entirely different girlfriend. Passages we have heard between one iteration of the man and the woman are repeated by the other iteration of the man and the other woman. Suddenly the repetition creates tension. Which relationship is in the present? Which relationship is in the past? There are few temporal landmarks.
Unexpectedly my trip to London was full of plays and musicals that use repetition to enhance and change your emotional reaction to something you have heard before. Constellations by Nick Payne is an entire play of repeated text (with slightly nuanced
variations). The repetitive lines there are about expressing the possibility of parallel universes and how one couple might fare through the fractured lens of immeasurable other realities. Merrily We Roll Along, which is structured in reverse chronological order, uses repetitive musical threads to great effect. For instance, Not a Day Goes By is sung both at the character's divorce as well as her wedding. Hearing it first for the divorce and then later for the wedding colors the meaning of the reprise because you already know that this hopeful, happy moment will come to a broken end. What could have been a sweet moment on its own and just a beautiful song becomes trenchant and bittersweet because of the repetition and the juxtaposition.
Here, in The River, all this replication is blended with a great deal of silence. With sparse language, and a great deal unspoken, you palpably feel the space between the characters.
They are exploring where exactly they are in this relationship and where
things are going with it. But much of what they are feeling and thinking is unexpressed and we feel the emotional distance. I loved the space that the play took. Sometimes silence can be more effective at expressing a relationship than a constant stream of dialogue. Using the small stage and the rustic enclosure of the cabin, the staging gave the right amount of space to the words, emotions and performances.
Dominic West, who I thought was revelatory as Iago last year, was magnetic again in the role of The Man. He's believably rugged as he guts a fish and cooks it, yet intensely romantic as he expresses his love to The Woman (Miranda Raison) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly).
What was spoken, was often repeated but did not become tiresome. Craving information or clues to this mysterious story, I found myself very attuned to what was being said, what was being withheld and how the results of the repeated conversations sometimes varied. In contrast to Constellations, where I struggled with the writer's intent, here I felt like Butterworth had a keen sense of where the play was going and what he was writing, even if the audience was not to be let in on all the plans. His confidence in his skill and his vision makes the play work.
The "mysteries" of the play are not neatly wrapped up. Like the aforementioned subway conversation, Butterworth leaves you to fill in the holes. You bring to this play your own relationships and your experiences. There was something luxurious and freeing about that. That freedom coupled with the lack of signposts in the play gave me a feeling of being suspended in the air. Butterworth holds that tension like a beautiful note of music and it was enough to sustain me.
I'm not much of an outdoorsy person, but I happen to like birdwatching. What is always so incredible about birdwatching is when you are paying attention to the woods or fields around you, you hear every sound. You become attuned to even the smallest movement around you. Your senses become heightened and re-directed at things you might otherwise tune out in your day-to-day life.
I found The River had the same effect on me. Dealing in the ephemeral sights and sounds of nature, love, and relationships, The River transports the audience to another place, time, and world. But you are left to find your own way home and you must listen, you must look around you, you must become aware. Like nature itself, that journey can be beautiful, terrifying, mysterious, and intoxicating. But to truly experience nature you must give in to all those sensations even if it means only understanding an infinitesimal amount of what you are actually feeling.