Broadway Review: ‘The River’ Starring Hugh Jackman

The River review Hugh Jackman Broadway

The peculiar configuration of the stage at Circle in the Square creates a sense of close-encounter intimacy that is making Hugh Jackman’s fans very happy. So long as they silence their cell phones and don’t try to snap a photo (after a fervent and apparently necessary pre-curtain request made by the understudy), they deserve that bit of joy. Aside from the charismatic star’s intense performance as a lovesick fisherman who is given to poetic laments over the fish (and the woman) who slipped away from him, just about everything else about Jez Butterworth’s strange chamber piece, “The River,” is a downer.

It takes a while for that bad news to sink in, because helmer Ian Rickson’s atmospheric staging of the play (a transfer from the Royal Court) creates an initially entrancing air of mystery. The open-sided setting designed by Ultz depicts the rustic cabin where a character designated The Man (Jackman) has taken a character designated The Woman (Cush Jumbo) for a romantic night of trout fishing.

The lighting (by UK designer Charles Balfour) is subtly seductive, and the ever-inventive sound maven Ian Dickinson (of the Autograph design team),  who also did the fancy work on “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Jerusalem,” has invented a symphony of provocative night sounds that sustains the mood of the play from beginning to end, even when the human voices start to grate on the ear.

Things start to go south when the Woman opens her mouth to reveal a shallow, rather silly character who gains no stature from Jumbo’s perky performance. And while Jackman puts heart and soul into Butterworth’s mystical meditations on the spiritual properties of trout fishing (even as he efficiently guts and cooks a very real fish on stage), fishing is still fishing and after a while you feel the urge to throw these fishy speeches back into the water.

That initial sense of mystery is temporarily restored when The Other Woman shows up in the ladylike person of Laura Donnelly, a more suitable love object with a far better vocabulary — although, like The Woman, she, too, has a disconcerting way of slipping away without a word and leaving The Man in despair.

The offstage singer giving voice to William Butler Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus,” suddenly makes sense, because Aengus was the god of youth, beauty, and poetry who reigned over “the country of the young.”  The central image of this beautiful poem is “a little silver trout” that turns into “a glimmering girl with apple blossoms in her hair” who kisses Aengus — and then disappears.  Like the fisher-poet, who grows old looking in vain for his glimmering girl, The Man is doomed to keep catching and losing the elusive silver trout of his dreams, trying in vain to capture that enchanted moment when he was a young god and life was perfect.

The poem is thick with symbolic imagery of Celtic myth, Christian allegory and fairytale magic, making it a natural inspiration for Butterworth, who mined the same rich vein in “Jerusalem.” But let’s have a reality check, here. Yeats was mooning over the beautiful and brilliant Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne, the woman he called his spiritual soul-mate and often portrayed with apple blossoms in her hair — not a couple of petulant airheads.


Broadway Review: 'The River' Starring Hugh Jackman

Circle in the Square; 696 seats; $175 top. Opened Nov. 16, 2014. Reviewed Nov. 12. Running time: ONE HOUR, 25 MIN.


A presentation by Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Colin Callender, Scott Landis, Tulchin Bartner Productions, of the Royal Court Theater production of a play in one act by Jez Butterworth.


Directed by Ian Rickson. Set, Ultz; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound, Ian Dickinson for Autograph; composer, Stephen Warbeck; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro.


Hugh Jackman, Laura Donnelly, Cush Jumbo.

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  1. Katie L says:

    thank you so much for your comments. I felt the same exact way after seeing the play this past Sunday, and I still can’t get it out of my head. In doing some on line reading about the play I came across yours and I could have said it any better. So thank you!

  2. Sandra Patrice says:

    I am so sorry that the reviewer is clueless about the meaning of the play. It is quite beyond fishing and girlfriends, but you have to listen closely and have literary and spiritual touchstones to get it. Man represents all of us in search for meaning/ love/ redemption in life. The closest he gets is when he is 7 ( a number associated with the Divine) and let’s a silver sea trout escape. He searches for it but comes up with a stone that he keeps. The stone represents his heart and poor substitute for the fish, the way each Woman character represents the poor substitute of the unshown first girlfriend. The silver sea trout originally started as a brown spotted trout but is one if the few fish to seek deeper waters. It becomes transformed in Iceland and returns to the river and spawn and not die like the brown spotted trout when it spawns. Man, the name of the main character, is like that brown spotted trout, unable or unwilling see in the darkness or even his true reflection in water. He seems to be forever trapped in a cycle of his quest for Truth and Love, but still hoping, shown by Woman 3. Various spiritual symbolism can not be missed. The cooking of fish, that was “once real;” the reference of To a Lighthouse; the poem by Yeats; the mention of eternity, the red dress; the bird set free; the sunset; water; darkness; the priest knife.
    It is really on great play, but unfortunately it’s meaning may be lost on viewers who are unwilling to or unused to seeking depth.

  3. Sigma60 says:

    I found the play hauntingly memorable. As you get older, you tend to engage in similar patterns in affairs of the heart. Are you consciously or subconsciously trying to recreate a past experience, either accurately or as you prefer to remember it? When you are opening up to another, to what extent is it honesty or artifice? Are you revealing yourself in a certain way because that’s who you are, or because it has worked effectively with past partners? I kept thinking about this play long after it was over.

  4. Fred specktor says:

    Your reviewer is truly stupid. He doesn’t know or understand poetry. I have seen this play 3 times and it is great art.

    • Michael Anthony says:

      Stupid? Are you a true lover of the arts? If u were, you would know that NO play, film, music, etc, will be universally loved or loathed. That’s the point of it all. Instead of calling names, perhaps say why it is so great. And considering her other works, they would be hard to top.

  5. Ani says:

    What play was you watching? That play held my attention from the moment it started until it ended.

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