With The River, it’s as if Jez Butterworth has taken all the anarchic energy of ‘Jerusalem’, bundled it into a corner and starved it of oxygen. Everything that was exhilarating and energising in Jerusalem has become cold, still and ugly. This dark energy – call it the cruel side of the countryside or the wilder side of human nature – is only released occasionally in The River. When it does wriggle free it’s horribly unsettling; like a chilling wind that will not pass.
We begin in a cozy log cabin, where Dominic West’s ‘Man’ is holed up with Miranda Raison’s ‘Woman’. The atmosphere feels odd but that’s mainly down to a strange lack of chemistry. It’s as if these two lovers have just had sex in a fridge. But then an ensnaring Ted Hughes poem is thrown into the mix and things heat up. The Man gets excited – not by the beautiful woman in front of him but by nature. He extols the virtues of midnight trout fishing and his unlikely enthusiasm casts a spell over us all.
Things start to go wrong. People disappear and others reappear in their place. It gets hard to trust anyone or anything (time becomes elastic) and the play wriggles around in the strangest of ways; like a fish in our hands, struggling to get free. The Man and his Woman become trapped in a twisted cycle, as something ugly - perhaps prompted by that wild location or perhaps simply dormant in us all – begins to take over this romantic retreat. The skewed chronology means we know something bad is coming but not when. We wait for that ugly, hidden energy to make itself known. Ian Rickson does well to hold onto this anticipation, keeping as tight a lid on the play’s dark energy as he dare.
This cruel anticipation is the play’s strongest point. In fact, the atmosphere feels far more powerful than characters ensnared by it. West does well to hold onto the ambiguity of his character but his performance is, by necessity, a forced one. Butterworth’s dialogue, with its self-conscious phrasing (‘this chapel of cloud passed over my head’), sounds odd. This might be a man with secrets but even a character’s lies need to ring true. A whole play of such false notes is tough to take. It feels like the characters are there to bolster the atmosphere; a strange and dishonest dramatic hierarchy.
Yet there’s still an uneasy force festering here. There’s a cracking moment when West expertly guts and cooks a fish for dinner. It’s easily the most expressive scene and it is a silent one. To the strains of soothing classical music, West guts a real fish and pulls out its insides. The fish looks so silver and shiny and gorgeous – but inside it’s a gory mess. A creeping feeling builds that perhaps something might - or should - fight back for that powerless fish; that perhaps nature will seek its revenge or find its release by creeping into the darkest parts of our souls and making animals out of every one of us.