When a production boasts a cast of such calibre as Dominic West and Miranda Raison, it’s rare that there would be more excitement about the unseen writer/director duo behind the production, but that’s exactly the case with The River.
Director Ian Rickson and writer Jez Butterworth’s first collaboration following the international smash-hit Jerusalem is unsurprisingly being touted as this season’s hot ticket; all the more hot for its inability to book in advance, instead calling on audiences to try their luck online or queue on the day. Luckily, the simmering, sinister drama, while entirely different to Jerusalem, lives up to expectations, leaving audiences questioning exactly what they have just seen.
To say too much would spoil Butterworth’s extraordinary clever and mysterious device which, after 10 minutes of seemingly straight forward action, shakes any preconceptions you may have made about the unnamed characters you meet in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs’ intimate setting.
What I can say is that West’s The Man has brought Raison’s The Woman to his cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend. Set on a hot moonless August night they plan to venture to the river to catch sea trout in the darkness. But, as it gradually transpires, it is not the first time she has done so, and when The Other Woman is entered into the mix in the most surprising of ways, we discover it is not the first time he has taken a woman to the river as he may have claimed.
The River is both intensely naturalistic and unsettling surreal. Rickson’s detailed direction sees West prepare a whole meal on stage – from gutting a fish to deliciously smothering it in vegetables and oil – in real time, the characters languishing in every breath and word, the audience witness to their every move. But with characters passing one another like ghosts, conversations repeated on loop, poetic descriptions of things that have passed and an ownerless scarlet dress ominously left hanging in the rustic cabin’s bedroom, nothing is as it seems.
West brings to the production an explosive intensity, creating a complex character impossible to work out. When we first meet him he is rough and ready in fishing gear, at home in the sparse, earthy surrounds of the cabin. But with wine books in the rack, fennel ready for his fish and poetry at his fingertips, it becomes clear this is not his natural habitat, only adding to the mystery of who this man really is.
Raison is sophisticated and witty as his guest, the pair clearly in the first throes of a romance, not quite comfortable with one another, while Laura Donnelly is more vivacious and fearless, keeping West’s seemingly vulnerable character on his toes. One blonde, one brunette, the pair become like Snow White and Rose Red in a strange fairy tale that feels as if it is teetering on the brink of violence or building to some terrible conclusion.
To give away that conclusion or whether it is violence, loneliness, heartbreak or joy that ends the 80 minutes of glued-to-your-seat drama would, of course, be unfair to the lucky few who do get to see West, Raison and Donnelly’s mysterious dance. Whatever audiences do make of the ending, however, Rickson’s atmospheric production that embraces every sense from the smell of the cooked fish to the sound of the howling wind is sure to get under their skin.