Sonia Friedman Productions
The Royal Court Theatre Production
(The River Website)
A New Play by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
Circle in the Square
(Circle in the Square Website)
50th Street, at 1633 Broadway
Laura Donnelly and Cush Jumbo
Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
US General Manager: Bespoke Theatricals
UK General Manager: Sonia Friedman Productions
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA and Amy Ball
Production Stage Manager: Michael J. Passaro
Assoc. Producers: JFL Theatricals, 1001 Nights
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 23, 2014 Matinee
Attending the Royal Court Production of Jez Butterworth’s The River is a transporting and surreal experience. This intermission-less, brief play is spellbinding, with Circle in the Square’s circular seating surrounding most of the stage, amidst Charles Balfour’s incandescent lighting. We are almost inside The Man’s (Hugh Jackman) fishing cottage, on a fast-running river, where at certain points, when calendar and stars align, hordes of trout are jumping, available for an elusive, miraculous catch. But, this is no play about a weekend vacation. No, it’s a mysterious, thought-provoking unfolding of characterizations, with The Woman (Cush Jumbo) and The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) interchanging as The Man’s lover and fishing partner of the moment. One woman walks offstage, the other returns to finish the sentence. As this is a mystery, and post-theater, audience mumbling suggested that the mystery remains unsolved, this review will offer few details of the plot.
The scenic designer is Ultz, whose wooden stage represents the cottage floor, and, at various moments, the river, itself. Poetry (the audience received W. B. Yeats’ “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” - “I went out to the hazel wood, because a fire was in my head…”), is recited, as well as memories that bring the cottage history to the fore. An intriguing twenty minutes or so passes, as Mr. Jackman prepares a fresh trout, chopping onions, sprinkling seasoning, tucking vegetables within, grilling, baking, then eating it, over candles and wine, with one of the women, before our eyes. The audience might be craving grilled, stuffed trout, as they leave, with the aroma still wafting through the theater. One might assume that the muscular, gym-fit, dancer-singer, Mr. Jackman would seem out of his element here, but he was masterful and “manly” as The Man, flirtatious, foreboding, and fervent. Ms. Jumbo and Ms. Donnelly, both much more diminutive than Mr. Jackman, have decidedly different shapes, hairstyles, costumes, skin shading, and personalities. That’s what makes the acting shifts so disarming. The Man’s memories and tales, of fishing, women, and the river, unfold with eeriness and etherealness. Jessica Love makes a brief, effective appearance as well. Ms. Jumbo and Ms. Donnelly are both artists to watch.
Ian Rickson has directed to elongate stage time, of monologue, dialogue, cooking, and pure silence. This play is only eighty-five minutes, but it seems we’ve been there, with the characters, for at least a day and night. Ultz’ scenic design is wide open, like a rushing river, and the sound design, by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, brings the river to life. Stephen Warbeck’s original music enhances the interludes. The mood lightened, after the play, as Mr. Jackman auctioned off his two shirts and the cast’s signed posters for a charitable fund, Broadway Cares. Then, miraculously, he raised $5,000.00, by including a backstage visit. Hugh Jackman managed all this with humor and an abundance of charisma. It’s that outsized stage presence that infused Jez Butterworth’s The River with an interior glow. Kudos to Hugh Jackman.