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Streams of complexity: The River

18 May 2016

The River

by Jez Butterworth

OHADS ;Hampton Hill Theatre Studio

Review by Mark Aspen

Izaak Walton meets Sigmund Freud in OHADS’ recent production of Jez Butterworth’s The River, a gem of such compact complexity that the audience at The Coward Studio at Hampton Hill (“The Playhouse”, as most people affectionately know it) was immersed wader-deep in discussion long after the play’s ending.  But if you like your endings all tied up, you should cast your net in different waters.

The play concerns The Man (names would only detract from the mood of the play) obsessed by game fishing, whose solitary existence in a cabin on the bank of a remote river is punctuated by the annual visit of The Woman (who may be The Other Woman).   Is she (are they) real or merely a reflection in the waters of The Man’s imagination?

The story leaves the audience to unravel the tangled lines of a … … well, is it a Gothic novel or a ghost story, or an allegory or a parable?  Whatever it is, it is a beautifully written tale and under Harry Medawar’s direction a remarkable piece of intense theatre.

Trine Taraldsvik’s set had that understated precision that we have come to expect of her work. Atmospheric and appropriate, it was sufficiently detailed to tell us much about The Man.  It had a nautical neatness offset with little give-aways like the whisky bottles on high shelf.   But, under Steph Pang’s lighting design, it was an impressionistic picture, the shifting effect of the light tempering its effect.   As the audience arrived, it was lit using ivy-shaped gobos that said “secrecy”.  The third element of the design was John Pyle’s sound design, which utilised wistful music by Will Williams.  The sounds of the river and the barely perceptible whirr of crickets were subtle and never intrusive.

When the play opens The Man is preparing to take The Woman on a midnight fishing expedition along the river. The combination of new moon, a river in spate and the call to mate brings hundreds of sea-trout up the river, greedy revengeful sea trout in the estimation of The Man.   The anglers each have a book to read before they venture into the darkness.  The Woman’s is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.   (The significance of this is not explained in the play, but it is worth noting that one of the characters in To the Lighthouse, James Ramsey, the son, cuts a piece of flesh from a fish that he has caught, to use for bait, throwing the injured fish back into the sea.)   The Man’s choice of reading matter is River by Ted Hughes, an anthology of poems about beauty and violence in the natural world.

From this start, the story unfolds obtusely through a series of metaphoric symbols, all of which constantly reappear. The Man’s late uncle, who seems to have led the same life as The Man, but is reviled by him for his promiscuity, is a symbol of guilt.  There is the robin, a symbol of constancy, rebuffed and buffeted when trapped outside of its element. Water of course features heavily in this symbolism, never the same, but when still a source of reflection.  The Man draws sketches of The Woman and of The Other Woman, by observing her in a bowl of water.  He cannot face the reality.  The overarching symbol is that of the fish, fearsome but desirable, always elusive, figurative of passion.

The River is unlike any other Butterworth play: it is certainly an Amazon’s course away from Mojo, the play with which I am the most familiar. As we have seen, it is saturated with symbolism, impregnated with metaphor, and inundated with ambiguity.  It is often self-consciously literary.

And here there could lie a problem with a lesser set of actors, but OHAD’s play is certainly well cast. (No pun intended, as the pun is almost the only trope not used in The River.) All of the actors had a balanced sense of the literary language.  It was relished whilst being realistic.  Neither over-blown on one hand, nor thrown away on the other. My only reservation was that on the opening night when I saw the play, some of the more lyrical lines were taken too fast and could have been more reflective.  It did feel a little rushed and the play came in much shorter than the standard running time.  With first-night anxieties out of the way, the cast probably better enjoyed the poetry.

That said, the acting was superb and the characterisation spot-on.   Steve Webb excelled as The Man: raw and refractory, he put over an understated air of menace.   Liz Williams skilful handling of the role of The Woman showed her character balancing caution with abandon, and reserve with openness.   Mia Skytte Jensen’s willowy The Other Woman, which had a more playful approach, sinuous and skittish, yet prudent and pensive, was delightfully drawn.   Then, just as The Man seemed figuratively to be packing up his life in a sea-chest, there appeared the third woman  (The Other Other Woman?:  the plot thickened) played by Rebecca Tarry, who was not credited in the cast-list but secreted away in the acknowledgements.  All three actresses showed a controlled sensuality beautifully depicted.

On that night, during the new moon with river in spate (or was it another night, for a sequential chronology is neither given nor required for this play?) The Woman (or was it The Other Woman?) gets lost in the dark. She meets another angler, a very different one, a pragmatic poacher, not a poet, who is breaking the syntax of the poetry of game fishing by using Monster Munch as bait.  Cheating, but successful, he rewards The Woman’s kiss with a three-pound trout.  We saw none of this, but we did see the trout.  What distracted me was why was the fish gutted and de-gilled and wrapped neatly in foil?  All done in the dark?  Maybe the offal was used as further bait?  Maybe The Woman had popped down to Sainsburys? Still the poacher episode did provide some light relief, so I shouldn’t carp on about it (whoops!).

I was about to be further distracted by The Man’s preparation and cooking of the fish (a further skill the Steve Webb had to demonstrate) when I realised that this was yet another act of symbolism.   Having wondered why the fish was crudely hacked up and not cooked whole, I realised that the fish symbolises passion and, for The Man, symbolises womanhood. The allusion to To the Lighthouse becomes manifest.     (More down to earth, the cooking stove was another great little Taraldsvikism.  The fish went in the oven raw and came out cooked, presumably via a trap door at its back: cunning!)

So, what is this play all about? It is clearly about obsession, and an obsession that feels deliciously illicit, but beyond that each can make a personal interpretation.   For me, the subjects are: love and deceit; catching the moment; and the elusiveness of possession. The Man seeks both passion and possession, but both are fleetingly fugitive (like a fish), difficult to hold on to (like a fish), easily lost (like a fish).  He seeks a woman which (equally like a fish) he can hold, he can lose or he can consume.

The River is a fascinating play, soaked in metaphor and dripping with poetry. And in OHAD’s production, the streams of writing, design, directing and acting, became a fluent whole.

We never knew that fishing could be so intriguing, but the story, like all good fishermen’s stories, is about the one that got away.

 Mark Aspen

April 2016

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