Is it a ghost story or something more ghastly? The one thing that’s certain about Jez Butterworth’s enigmatic “The River,” his first play since the trans-Atlantic success story that was “Jerusalem,” is that Ian Rickson’s spellbinding production could not be bettered. Across 80 quiet, rivetingly intense minutes, inexorable threat curdles into dread. Yet as the play finishes with its puzzle, for the most part, solved, you’re left with the feeling that immaculate acting, design and direction are flattering faintly derivative material.
Like Butterworth’s earlier plays “The Night Heron” and “The Winterling,” the action (or lack thereof) of “The River” takes place in a remote rural setting. In Ultz’s beautifully realized wood cabin, old and low-ceilinged, an unnamed man (Dominic West) is trying to persuade his equally nameless new girlfriend (Miranda Raison) to join him for some night-fishing.
Although the nicely shrewd Raison is initially unpersuadable, the implication at the end of the opening scene is that she’ll join him in the dark. But moments later it’s clear that events haven’t gone according to plan and tension rockets as we discover West frantically calling the police because she’s gone missing. Mercifully, she suddenly reappears. Or does she?
Butterworth pulls a switch here that it would be ruinous to reveal. He exerts a narrative grip by alerting audiences to the fact that West’s character is not only suspiciously unreliable but that almost everything he says may not be truthful. The air almost palpably thickens with unease, and audiences turn detective.
As events proceed, everything that has been taken for granted in the opening setup begins to unravel. Butterworth has previously drawn on Pinter as a model and here, the man caught between two women, one of whom may or may not be there, is a definite echo of “Old Times.” Hints are dropped, and Raison’s fearful suspicions lead to revelations that expose less a whodunit than a what-has-he-done? Yet, unlike with Pinter, Butterworth’s over-reliance upon the twists of a plot, with the writer withholding vital information, reveals a weakness in the writing that ultimately undercuts the impressive chill that he so winningly conjures in the moment-by-moment dialogue.
The latter features hugely poetic passages, rich though somewhat self-conscious, extolling the virtues of the almost spiritual nature of fishing. They’re balanced by scenes of fearful tension which are a gift for actors, especially when directed by Rickson.
As his original production of Conor McPherson’s not dissimilar “The Weir” proved, he is a master at mapping actors onto naturalistic text. He elicits and shapes unforced, exquisitely calibrated performances from his actors who, by never overstating an emotion, draw audiences into the character’s dilemmas.
With the women carefully presented as balanced opposites, both Raison and Laura Donnelly are slightly limited, but each of them handle pace and mood with unflashy control. West’s character, the focus of the play, offers far more opportunities, all realized. West’s initially bluff demeanor gives way to something infinitely sadder. And the extended silent scene in which he guts a fish with a sharp knife and matter-of-factly but happily makes dinner is a perfect example of actor, director and writer operating in fascinating harmony.
Charles Balfour’s superbly atmospheric lighting suggests that the tiny cabin is lit almost exclusively by hurricane lamps and candles. The fact that it’s not is indicative of the production’s unobtrusive visual control of the extremely intimate space. It completely vindicates the decision to stage the play — for which was there was unparalleled pre-opening demand — in a 93-seat venue.
Everything about “The River” demands intimacy. If it is to transfer after its SRO-run, it needs to find a space not much bigger to continue to exert its grip. The energy required to play a wider, larger space would weaken the tension and reveal the play’s underlying artificiality.