While sitting in the Burton Taylor studio waiting for the production to start, I got out my phone and started browsing reviews of Jez Butterworth’s 2012 play, The River. Having missed his critically lauded Jerusalem, I was excited to see the playwright’s most recent effort. And if Michael Billington’s enthusiastic review of the debut Royal Court production made me optimistic, it was reading Tim Walker’s one-star review in the Telegraph which made me almost certain I was going to enjoy the play. Far from being a piece which — as the fastidious and needlessly negative Telegraph review asserts — ‘plumbs the shallows,’ The River struck me as an endlessly open, constantly shifting piece of theatre.
Butterworth’s chief skill as a playwright seems to lie in his ability to shift swiftly between different moods. The play opened in the dining room of a country house, with a dark wooden table, a cupboard and bookshelf, and bottles of red wine. A man (Charlie Tyrer) and a woman (Megan Thresh) chatted about poetry and nature, romance lingering in the air. But the hint of eye-rolling cliché which began to suffuse the opening was beaten out of the play by the drama of the following scene, in which the same man, now panicked and shivering, called the police to report his girlfriend missing. When she strolled back into the scene, she was played by a different actor, Ella Jackson, and yet the couple carried on as if nothing had changed. The audience were never quite sure who these two women were: perhaps they were supposed to represent the multiple women this man had taken to this country house over the years. It seemed as though the point was not to try and unlock this secret; rather, the ambiguity was key to the play, by forcing the audience to suspend their disbelief, and therefore think about the otherworldliness of the theatre.
This play constantly reaches out, appearing to give its audience a hand in comprehending its bizarre events, before pulling just out of reach. The audience quickly discovers that the man’s current girlfriend is not the first woman he brought to this country house. The exactitudes of his previous, and indeed current, relationships are, however, ambiguous and unknowable in the play’s intriguingly impenetrable, allusive temporality.
The naturalistic acting was perfectly judged, since it threw the semi-dystopian, alien tone of much of the play into relief. Charlie Tyrer played a not very likeable character with confidence. If there was a fault, it was that his impassioned speeches — especially those about his ‘sacred’ relationship with his girlfriend, and his almost spiritual enthusiasm for fishing — occasionally felt a bit hammy and overdone. However this was perhaps more of a fault in Butterworth’s writing than in Tyrer’s delivery. Thresh and Jackson were both impressive, each one interpreting their character with subtle differences: Thresh’s character was more coy; Jackson’s more confident. The scene in which Jackson walked in, stoned, having just caught a sea trout, displayed an immense amount of skill, her interactions with Tyrer hilariously funny, and yet masking something sinister below the surface.
Nuance in the play’s tone is crucial, with comedy tempered by the resentment of fractured relationships, by guilt, romance, jealousy. The scene in which Tyrer prepared a piece of trout while dancing comically to the radio, was undercut by the grotesque image of the slippery, lifeless fish being slapped down on the dining table. Director Tallulah Vaughan clearly worked hard on the visual detail of the production, and it came across well. Thresh beautifully conveyed nonchalance as she stepped out of the bathroom in her white dressing gown, before quickly turning into bitterness as she revealed she had found another woman’s gold earrings by the sink. In this scene in particular, Thresh’s command of the stage, and her power over the audience fully emerged.
This is a play which is meant to perplex. The audience is never allowed to settle, never allowed to get a foothold on its internal logic. Michael Billington wrote that 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.’ I don’t necessarily disagree, but it seems that Butterworth was also writing a metatheatrical reflection on drama, trying to see what happens when you invent a set of new, introspective rules for a play, without letting the audience in on the secret. Although it is overshadowed in Butterworth’s oeuvre by Jerusalem, this intriguing and provocative play — handled with a perfectly subtle touch in this production — struck me as a piece worthy of more attention.
‘The River’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until the 22nd October. For more information and to book tickets, please visit their Facebook page.