Review: Does Jez Butterworth's The River @royalcourt live up to expectation?
The Royal Court created both excitement and a stink when it announced it was to showcase a new play by Jez Butterworth.
Excitement because it's the first new play by Butterworth since Jerusalem took the West End and Broadway by storm. Stink because tickets would only go on sale on the day of the performance, penalising those who live outside London, those whose nights out need careful organising and members who pay to get access to tickets in advance.
When Dominic West and Miranda Raison were cast it became, probably, the most anticipated play of the year. But does it live up to expectation and all the hype?
The first thing to say is, it isn't Jerusalem. And it shouldn't be despite how much, deep down, you secretly wish it was. This is an entirely different creature.
What is trademark Butterworth is the poetic language but in The River he takes it to a new level. This is the sort of language that takes you to another place, a place the characters have been to, rather than the fantasy of Jerusalem's Rooster but crucially it is far gentler, far more delicate.
It is difficult to describe and outline without giving too much away but its setting is a fishing lodge (@Polyg said it reminded her of the set for The Village Bike) where a man (Dominic West) has taken a girlfriend (Miranda Raison) for a romantic break.
He is passionate about fishing to the point of romantacising it and wants to share that passion. We know nothing of the couples history except that comments and conversation point to it being a new relationship.
Whether caught up in the romantic setting of a beautiful sunset on a summer evening or whether it is genuine feeling, he tells her he loves her.
"I may bring other women here, to this place, and I may tell them I love them, and make love to them. But they will be imposters. And I will be a ghost. Because it means I will have lost you."
And that is the rub, as Hamlet would say. How genuine is he? Certainly his actions and words would imply so.
On the Royal Court's website it refers to The River as 'bewitching' and it does have its moments where it casts a spell and you feel swept up in the romance of it all but then there is something which quietly nags at the back of your mind. Dominic West is so at ease in his performance you could put any words into his mouth and they would sound natural and it is hard not to believe him.
I think subtle is the key word. There are thematic threads about truth, love, death and life but like the water so often described by the characters it is difficult to pin down. Where Jerusalem blew me away, The River has haunted me, it has moments that are breathtaking.
It is always going to suffer in comparison, the difficult second album after a number one smash hit. If I was being mean I'd describe it as a palate cleanser before the next big course but that would ignore the merit in its beautiful language and how atmospheric a piece it is. It's a four star rather than a five star.
The River runs (excuse the pun) Upstairs at The Royal Court until Nov 17. Tickets are available on the day of the performance only from 9am online or in person at the box office at 10am and you can read about my experience getting tickets in the posts listed below.
Trials and tribulations of getting tickets for Jez Butterworth's The River
Trials and tribulations of getting tickets for Jez Butterworth's The River - an update
And you can read Poly's thoughts on the play on her blog