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.