The River

Jez Butterworth
Elysium Theatre Company
City Theatre, Durham

Hannah Ellis Ryan in The River

I'm sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that there’s ever been a professional production of a Jez Butterworth play in the North East. Reviews for his first play, Mojo, intrigued me with its string of awards and his 2006 The Winterling (which Philip Fisher reviewed for the BTG) again piqued my interest but it was the 2009 Jerusalem, with what I am assured was a brilliant performance by Mark Rylance, which really made me think, “I want to see this man’s work.”

Alas, it wasn’t to be, for performances of his plays and my visits to London never seemed to coincide, so when new Durham-based company Elysium announced it was to produce The River in the city I really had to see it, even though it’s slap-bang in the middle of panto season and I am more used to hearing that he’s behind you than anything else.

Was it worth the wait? Emphatically.

It’s a strange piece, playing with time and relationships, giving us a mini-history of fly fishing and a short treatise on the different lives and habits of river trout, sea trout and salmon, as well as mention of Virginia Wolfe, Ted Hughes and sunsets. We’re taken back to the protagonists’ childhoods and threats are uttered: “If you lose me, you will search for me. Forever.” There’s a call to the police and nude swimming (offstage).

As for the language, it varies from the very poetic to the downright crude—and everything in between.

How on earth can all these things be blended together into a satisfactory, a satisfying or, indeed, a meaningful whole? I heard “a lot to ponder there” said and repeated in different words as we left the auditorium.

There certainly is.

The characters are The Man, The Woman, The Other Woman and Another Woman, and, strangely, this nomenclature is actually helpful.

And it really does make sense; not the sense of logic and the intellect but the sense of the emotional intelligence and the imagination. It’s like dance: if what the dance says can be expressed in words, then it doesn’t need to be danced.

The setting, designed by Louis Price, is a cabin by a river where the sea trout come to spawn. It’s quite a well-appointed cabin, complete with kitchen, bedroom and shower. It belongs to The Man, someone to whom, to be honest, we don't particularly warm, played suitably enigmatically and with a real enthusiasm for fly-fishing by Danny Solomon. The Woman is Hannah Ellis Ryan, The Other Woman Lois Mackie and Another Woman Amy Gavin. They are all similar in many ways, very attractive and intelligent, and…

But I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that all the cast (under, obviously, the guidance of director Jake Murray) are perfectly convincing even in this disconcerting, puzzling and often unsettling play, a play which stays with you after the curtain comes down, teasing away at both brain and emotions.

The Durham run has finished but there is one more performance to come, in the Green Room at The Queen’s Hall in Hexham on 5 December, but I understand that that performance is sold out.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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