Review: Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Royal Court Upstairs

“No one else has ever seen it. I ‘ve never shown it to anyone”. Jez Butterworth’s The River is a small jewel of a play, drilling a hole into the lies and truths and uncertainties of love, or that place before love when a look can seal the deal or destroy everything. It’s poetic and a bit magical, and funny enough (in fact very funny at places) to blow away any cobwebs of pretentiousness. This place is real, but it might be the kind of real you never come across in everyday life.

The production, as directed by Ian Rickson, strikes a great balance between this magical poetic place and a realistic approach that brings delicate flavours into sharp relief (the cooking metaphors are not entirely out of place). From the set (the kitchen of a wooden cabin complete with oven, white curtains and a window seat) to lighting (kerosene lamps and transparent sunrises) the attention to detail is geared towards ultra realism. The pace is precise and beautiful. Occasionally it slows down to five minutes without dialogue and in those moments we were transfixed: Dominic West gutting a fish and chopping vegetables for several minutes was as fascinating as anything else in the play.

The characters can be a mystery (it’s no big spoiler to say they have no names), which is not to say they are vague. Dominic West, always a solid man’s presence, grapples with a desire (or is it a decision?) and plays uncertainty without a hint of weakness. (He also spends a lot of time in his socks, that will give any man an air of vulnerability). Laura Donnelly is an earthy warm intelligent presence and Miranda Raison has a naughty twinkle in her eye. Or is it the other way around? Without spoiling it, these are smoke and mirrors. (Weirdly, there is a fourth cast member not mentioned on the playtext or the website. I am not sure why. Anyone cares to shed any light? Her name is Gillian Saker).

Inevitably people will ask, is it worth going to great lengths to get a ticket? It’s a very good play, it might even become a masterpiece when the alchemy with an audience has played its part. But anyone expecting the bombastic cultural resonance of Jerusalem will be disappointed. This time you will have to queue for something smaller and more personal. This time the hype won’t make the decision for you.

Revstan shares her own thoughts on the production.

2 responses to “Review: Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Royal Court Upstairs

  1. My guess for the reason Gillian Saker isn’t credited is that if the audience knew that a third woman would appear at some point, it would give away a bit earlier quite how cyclical the nature of the scenes being enacted was (trying to explain what I mean without spoilers is tricky.)

    • Although it seems a possible explanation, it is quite extreme. Another woman in the story could be anybody, and I doubt anyone in the audience will spend time trying to fit her in. After all, that would apply to the other actors, as well as every play. Even with full knowledge of the play, the story can be interpreted in many ways: is he cynical or self deluded? Is there an order to these events that makes his version of the story true? With so many possibilities, I can’t see how another member of cast can count as a true spoiler.

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