Last Updated on 15th January 2015
Circle In The Square
January 11, 2015
It’s a cabin somewhere. You hear the heavy, almost relentless sound of rain and there is a certainty that you are in wilderness, or something close to it. A lake or river, you guess river because of the title of the play and if you do, you would be right. It’s dark outside; very dark. And for reasons which seem unfathomable there is a distinct feeling of chilly suspense in the air. It’s not luxury accommodation – it feels very much like a man’s domain and there is little of comfort on show. Fishing must be someone’s prime concern, because there is a lot of fishing gear around.
A woman is singing offstage. Eventually, she wanders in, looking for something. There are not many places where something could be accidentally misplaced, but it seems a palaver. Finally, she finds it: a tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. She seems mesmerised by what she sees through the window. Then, he enters. Strong, manly, purposeful – and momentarily you wonder if they are friends or foe. Is this the beginning of a serial killer story? Are they going to be hunted on the river? What is it that makes the sense of what is happening here so disquieting?
So begins Ian Rickson’s production of Jez Butterworth’s The River, now in its final month of performances at The Circle In The Square Theatre on Broadway. Although it is billed as the Royal Court’s production of the play, the cast for Broadway is almost entirely new; only Laura Donnelly reprises her role as The Other Woman.
As is de rigeur with Butterworth, the play requires concentration and imagination. This is no spoon-fed drama. But where his previous great hit, Jerusalem, needed trimming and clarity, The River needs a clearer focus. It is difficult to work out what is really happening, if anything, in this play.
The Man, here played by Hugh Jackman, is obsessed with two things it seems: fishing and love. Perhaps the love of fishing. Or fishing for love. He is something of a bush poet, tending to an overblown eloquence which seems at odds with the history of his life and the way he seems to lead his life. But he is all man and very handy with a knife – he can gut a fish, chop vegetables and prepare the fish for baking as well as take a splinter out of the finger of his lover. That’s dexterity for you. What else can he do with a knife you wonder.
The Woman who is reading To The Lighthouse has, it seems, just started her relationship with him. She is unsure about the relationship and finds him difficult to read and follow. He won’t do simple things, like look at the sunset with her, and irritates her with his casual one-description-fits-all account of what he expects the sunset looks like.
All he seems intent on is taking her fishing on the one moonless night of the year; the night he loves to fish most of all, when the fish are plentiful. To this end he has been training her all day in the art of lures and lines; but she is sunburnt as a result and doesn’t want to go on the moonless expedition. They argue, well bicker more than argue.
The second scene begins in darkness, palpably urgent as the Man returns from the river, alone, and desperately tries to call the police. The Woman is missing; he does not know what has happened to her in the River, she did not answer his calls. He seems distressed. But, is this just a cover up? Has he killed her and this is the alibi? Just as those thoughts seem to coalesce into certainty, the Woman returns.
Except it is not the Virgina Woolf woman. It is the Other Woman. Suddenly, we have shifted times. The location is the same but we are now either back in time or forward in time. It is never entirely clear which.
The Other Woman is very different from the Woman. She has met a poacher on the river and has caught a fish – she has had the experience the Man wanted her to have, but with another man. He seems, well, gutted. She has smoked weed and is in a good mood. He, on the other hand is not, and sends her off to bathe while he guts the fish she has caught and prepares it for their meal.
And so the play continues, alternating between scenes involving the Man and his lovers. There is never a moment when all three meet.
It turns out that it is not happenstance that the Woman is reading To The Lighthouse, a book which meditates on themes such as subjectivity, differing perceptions of the same situation and loss. Those appear to the the themes of Butterworth’s play too.
Whether he is a serial killer who disposes of the women he seduces who do not measure up to his requirements or he is a loner/loser who has set for himself an impossibly high challenge when it comes to the question of life partners, it is clear that the Man is fishing: both for actual fish and for the perfect woman. Whether he knocks unconscious and guts women who fail him the way he does fish is not clear. But it certainly is one possibility.
Both stories of the women involve similar moments: the moonless night fishing expedition, a declaration of love, a wrapped chunk of crystal/Rock, the discovery of a drawing of a woman in a red dress, her face scratched out, the woman’s realisation that the relationship can’t work for her. But the moments are perceived differently; the focus seems to be on the subjective viewpoint of the Man.
I say “seems to be” because there is a twist which calls everything that goes before it into question or perhaps indicates that history/the future repeats itself or perhaps…well, there may be endless consequences to the twist. Certainly, Butterworth does not make his intentions clear.
The audience around me seemed very confused about what the play was about. Some were angry; some were bored; some were mystified why that nice Mr Jackman was not so nice. But pretty much everyone who spoke about the performance as they filed out expressed total incomprehension about what it “was about”.
Of course, it is not necessary for the audience to understand the play for it to be great theatre. But, often, it helps. Here, it seems like Butterworth being both too clever and too clumsy at the same time: the flowery language is sometimes at odds with the simplicity of the narrative. There are clear allegorical waters flowing – the question, though, is where?
Ultz’ design for the production is immaculate. The sense of confined space in a rural wilderness is effortlessly conveyed. Charles Balfour’s lighting is wonderful; eerie and illuminating, exactly right for each different scene. Stephen Warbeck has composed some disquieting and effective music. Rickson’s direction is certain and detailed. I doubt you could ask for a better physical production of Butterworth’s play.
Cush Jumbo demonstrates her effortless star quality yet again as the Woman. She is wholly believable, full of grace and charm; you can see her intellectual side as clearly as you can see her Woolf paperback and the growing sense of unease that develops as her wilderness encounter with the Man is subtly and convincingly portrayed. Nothing not to like there.
As the Other Woman, Laura Donnelly is equally excellent. A completely different sort of woman, Donnelly’s manages to convey the sensual rawness of her character with clarity and style. Her speech about the moment while the Man was making love to her when she realised they could not be together is extraordinary to watch; she glistens all the while she is on stage. Together with Jumbo, they are a remarkable pair.
But it’s Jackman’s play. It is all about the Man, this work of Butterworth’s, as the twist makes crystal clear.
His Wolverine fans will no doubt be delighted by the tight T-shirt he wears and the bulging muscles on display. But Jackman brings a cool intensity to everything he does here which brings to mind his work in the television series Corelli. He manages a level of mysterious non-engagement with the women in his life; yet, suggests, fundamentally, and perhaps deliberately jarringly, a hunger for company, for love, for ideal companionship. His recounting of the story of his father’s use of the shack is delicious – and ambiguous. Is he following his father’s footsteps or fishing in his own river?
His performance is taut, virile and full of unspoken menace. He keeps you guessing as to what is really going on – but it is never clear whether that is because of real skill or because what is really going on is unknown.
As well, and this is not certain, but Jackman seems to be attempting an English accent. If he is, he fails; his Australian twang was acute. But Donnelly was Irish and Jumbo sought of Mary Tyler Moore neutral, neither American nor British. So the sense of place was impossible to judge; but, equally, the sense of universality of theme was crystal clear. This tale of man and woman and mating and heartbreak and fishing could be happening anywhere.
The scene where the freshly caught fish is gutted and prepared for baking is forensic in its detail. It seems to last a lifetime. When sliced lemon pieces were inserted into specially carved pockets in the fish, it was difficult to know if you were watching a play or a celebrity cooking show. But given the detail and the length of time spent on the gutting and preparations, Butterworth must have a point to make or an extrapolation to be drawn. What it is, however, escapes me.
This is a solid production of a reasonably ambitious, but quite dull, play. This has nothing to do with the actors or the director or the creative team. It’s just that Butterworth’s play is not as profound or engaging as he seems to think it is.