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English playwright Jez Butterworth gave himself a tough act to follow with 2009’s Jerusalem, a raucously anarchic three-hour tragicomedy about the state of the nation, built around the sublime modern Falstaff figure of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a hedonist for the ages. The River, a lyrical chamber piece that runs just 85 minutes, shares certain elements with the earlier play, notably a ruggedly masculine protagonist, a bucolic setting and a dual fascination with nature and myth. But despite the considerable charisma and commitment of its outsize star, Hugh Jackman, this new work is a sliver of a mood piece that never tightens its grip.
That evidently was not the case in London, where the play premiered in 2012 with Dominic West in the lead role at the Royal Court Upstairs, a snug theater with seating for just 90. Critics fell over themselves coming up with synonyms for enthralling and enigmatic. But in the 696-seat Circle in the Square — which is small by the standards of Broadway houses — the spell dissipates faster than the birdsongs piped into the auditorium before the show starts. And while the writing has a formal elegance matched by director Ian Rickson‘s exacting staging, Butterworth’s flights of poetic description and portentous repetition come off as too studied to be affecting.
The playwright juggles his stage career with screenwriting projects — he wrote this year’s James Brown biopic Get On Up with his brother John-Henry, as well as working on Doug Liman‘s Edge of Tomorrow and the next James Bond film. The River, however, is more of a literary exercise than a theatrical or cinematic one.
The unnamed Man played by Jackman is a Yeatsian figure (the poet’s The Song of the Wandering Aengus is the dominant motif), yearning for something elusive and unattainable. That would be the love of a perfect woman he once fleetingly captured and is now destined to keep seeking in a lifetime’s succession of failed romantic adventures. Butterworth uses fly-fishing as his metaphorical canvas.
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The Man begins the play in his isolated cabin — atmospherically rendered by designer Ultz and dimly illuminated by Charles Balfour with the illusion of hurricane lamps, a stove and candles as the sole light sources. He has brought along a Woman (Cush Jumbo), apparently in the early stages of their relationship, to accompany him out on the river during the one moonless late-summer night of the year when the sea trout are running. Professing to hate fishing, she’s reluctant to go, peeved that he won’t share her appreciation of a sunset whose colors and contours he knows by heart. But their fishing expedition eventually happens, ending badly when he phones the police in a panic after losing her in the darkness.
Enter the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), bearing a three-pound trout that she caught with the aid of another fisherman, with whom she shared a joint and some harmless flirtation. She’s clearly a different person to the one in the opening scene, but the Man appears not to notice. Soon after, his date leaves the room and the first Woman reappears, telling tales of eerie encounters in the village graveyard.
Not much else can be revealed about the play without diminishing its puzzles, but Butterworth nudges the audience to draw its own assumptions as he lays clues both accurate and misleading about the central mystery. Except that it’s not really much of a mystery.
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The playwright teases out hints of a ghost story, of some sinister, possibly recurring misdeed, or of the two Women merely as manifestations of the Man’s memory and desire. Butterworth also stacks the play with symbols — a framed drawing with the face scratched out, a scarlet dress, a trapped bird, a glittering black riverbed rock. The introduction of that last object made me think of the murderous Nick Cave–Kylie Minogue duet “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” an alluring four-minute tale of brooding love and dark obsession that’s far more beguiling than anything happening onstage here. Ultimately, the drama’s veiled secrets are more or less uncovered. But none of its possible interpretations has anything revelatory to say about the slippery dance of intimate relationships.
Many will find the language intoxicating. The play’s cryptic dialogue, loaded silences and prevailing unease have drawn comparisons with the work of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Conor McPherson. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Any sense of enveloping menace, mystery and even thematic weight that might mask the writing’s more ponderously mannered aspects is missing in this scaled-up transfer of the Royal Court production.
The text’s rapturous, quasi-spiritual descriptions of fishing are fussy and overworked, notably a passage in which the Man recalls the electric charge of his first catch at age seven. “You can’t describe it,” he says, which seems disingenuous after he’s just rattled off a lengthy monologue about “gin-clear” water, air that “thickened and yellowed,” “a tiny fly lit by sunlight, dipping low over the mirror water” and “a big chapel of cloud” overhead. Not to mention likening the actual fish to “God’s tongue.” Listen closely and you might hear Hemingway groaning in his grave.
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Jackman, to his credit, brings heart and a haunted sadness to the brawny aesthete who quotes Ted Hughes and Claudius Aelianus. He can also gut a fish and bake it over a bed of lemon-drizzled fennel and leeks in a no-fuss preparation that would make Jamie Oliver proud. The equivocal character’s relationship to the truth is as tenuous as his romantic unions, and yet Jackman makes him a soulful figure. It’s admirable in principle that the actor chose a challenging work for his Broadway return. But what X-Men superfans lining up for a close encounter with the declawed Wolverine will make of it is anyone’s guess.
The women in the play show intriguing ambivalence toward the Man’s offer of love, and yet neither Donnelly (the one holdover from the London cast) nor Jumbo manages to make them interesting characters. The tension that should ripple through every exchange just isn’t there.
Theater critics expressed frustration in London that so few people got to see The River in its limited run, for which only same-day tickets were available. Butterworth himself reportedly insisted on mounting the production in the Royal Court’s smaller theater, considering it best suited for an intimate playing space. The evidence here suggests his instinct was right.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Donnelly, Cush Jumbo
Director: Jez Butterworth
Playwright: Ian Rickson
Set and costume designer: Ultz
Lighting designer: Charles Balfour
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Colin Callender, Scott Landis, Tulchin Bartner Productions
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