In many respects, Jez Butterworth’s new play is very different from his spectacular hit Jerusalem. Where that drama was wild, expansive and hilarious, The River is subtle, sleek and dark. It’s a chamber piece for a small space and a handful of actors. Yet, in essence, it is fishing from the same pool: here too is that sense of reaching down in place and time to try and grasp something dark and earthy about who we are and how we behave. Here too, as in Jerusalem, is a sense of the mysterious and of kinship with others long gone. It’s an eerie piece, given a spellbinding production by Ian Rickson.
Basically, it is a story about fishing – for love, for truth, and, most obviously, for fish. A man has brought a woman (both nameless) to his rural cabin for a weekend of fishing and other sensual pleasures. But from the outset there are tensions. She wants him to share the sunset with her; he is intent on taking her night fishing for sea trout. Both seem to have an ideal against which they are pressing this relationship. After a tussle, he reels her in and they depart. But in the second scene the play suddenly darkens. We are back in the cabin – on the same night, we assume – but the woman, when she enters, is a different person.
Butterworth slips between time zones, pursuing one narrative arc with two different characters, demonstrating the tactics used to catch a mate and the slipperiness of the truth. The play becomes as mesmerising as a ghost story: the man is clearly haunted by the one that got away – but what happened to her and did she even exist? Yeats’s poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” ripples through the piece and there’s an air of enchantment about it, like a folk ballad about a man who falls for the faerie queen.
The achievement of both Butterworth and Rickson, however, is to keep the story grounded. There’s a keen sense of the physicality of life, lust and death, not least in the shape of a silvery fish that is gutted, cooked and eaten on stage. Set design (Ultz), lighting (Charles Balfour) and sound design (Ian Dickinson) conjure up the natural setting.
Dominic West gives a beautifully layered performance as a man who appears both rugged and romantic, but is actually deeply disturbed by his own hollowness and duplicity. He’s funny too, suggesting peevishly dented masculine pride when both women out-fish him, and he appears to be a dab hand in the kitchen. Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly are subtly matched, the one direct and sharp, the other quirky and capricious.
There are certainly flaws: Butterworth occasionally gets sucked into a current of overly lush writing. But this is a wonderful play, glinting and elusive as a fish. In the final instance, it is perhaps about time and eternity: about that spot on the river that, while always the same, is always changing.