In recent years, Jez Butterworth’s plays, particularly Jerusalem and The Ferryman, have been causing a real stir in British theatre and cementing his status as a true stalwart of contemporary drama. Sitting in between these two plays is his dark, haunting drama The River, and luckily, I got the opportunity to review York-based company Wildgoose Theatre’s latest production of it.
The River brings us into the ambiguous setting of a cabin in the wilds belonging to The Man (George Stagnell). He has a passion for fishing, but also a dark passion for meeting women one after another, satisfying a seemingly more sinister desire until they realise his plans. Claire Morley and Anna Rogers play the two women we meet in the play, and we encounter them through a series of intersections between past and present, uncovering the darkness permeating throughout The Man’s isolated existence.
Director Andy Love had a real challenge on his hands with this one; The River is a slow-paced, brooding, naturalistic play that demands its audience get completely lost in its chamber play-like realism. In addition, it requires a firm directorial vision that allows its narrative to breathe in such a way that the shifts between past and present are completely fluid and drift in and out of the spectators’ consciousness. It is clear from the start that Love has certainly succeeded in this endeavour.
The real harvest of Love’s directorial efforts lies in the way he has drawn out his characters, and encouraged portrayals that leave the audience unassuming and almost entirely untrustworthy of them. Stagnell crafts an energetic, eerily charismatic performance as The Man, inviting the audience into the cyclical, bleak and ultimately doomed existence of a man gripped by his past and former influences on him as a young boy. As we follow him along this journey, we bear witness to two equally haunting portrayals from Morley and Rogers, who push and succeed to keep the audience enthralled in their similar stories through confident performances, helping to craft a real melting pot of emotions that grip the audience from start to finish.
Drawing on influences from poetic texts such as Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer and drawing room dramas like A Doll’s House, Butterworth’s play requires that its actors completely support the traditions it draws upon in their performances. Love has clearly encouraged and inspired this in his cast, and there is a fluid sense of energy that captures a bond you would expect to see in those aforementioned plays. Love emphasises and enhances his tangible sense of the past, present and future in his set design; the room of a house that has been unlikely to change over the years, full of naturalistic details that allow an audience to construct images of real people and real lives, giving audiences a haunting, gloomy afterthought to leave the theatre with. These performances are so genuine and organic that you cannot help but realise these unsettling, dark situations the characters find themselves in do happen in humanity’s everyday existence.
Like The Man having his wicked way, Wildgoose’s production of The River has its wicked way with you. Through sensitive direction and compelling performances, it lulls you into a meditative, engrossed state that leaves you with poignant afterthoughts, and it ultimately cements Wildgoose’s status as a theatre company that puts its heart and soul into crafting powerful, riveting pieces of work.
The River played at the Friargate Theatre, York and Seven Arts Theatre, Leeds. For more information on Wildgoose Theatre and tickets to upcoming productions, visit: http://wildgoosetheatre.com/