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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE RIVER
at the Royal Court, Upstairs

PARALLEL UNIVERSES
By JOHN NATHAN

  Miranda Raison, Dominic West/ Ph: John Haynes

When you have written one of the finest plays in the modern era, what do you write next? Jez Butterworth – author of the all-conquering Jerusalem – answers the question with a much smaller play set in a rural cosy cabin.

It would seem the perfect setting for Butterworth and his long-time director Ian Rickson. Here they can reveal more of the renegade, even primeval heart of the English countryside – the one that beats beneath its romantic, twee carapace. And not for the first time it appears we're in the realm of the psychological thriller. Yet the subject here is less about the heart of a landscape than the broken heart of Butterworth's nameless, male hero, played with understated charisma by a roughly shaven Dominic West.

This man is the owner of the rural cabin in which all the action takes place. Although, there is something about Ultz's more chic than shack design that suggests that the emotions on display are not quite genuine. Here the two women in the play – also nameless – have at different times received the same seductive patter about love, fidelity and, erm, fishing.

Yet Butterworth is clearly after something that runs deeper than revealing one man's seduction technique. This is a play shot through with lyrical meditations on landscape, climaxing with a rendition of an exquisite Ted Hughes poem about a river and the man who fishes it. West's character relates the mysteries of the sport to each of his guests with contagious passion. And during these meditations the two women, played by Laura Donnelly and Miranda Raiso, who never share the stage, segue into and out of the scenes so that when one exits the room, you can never be sure which one of them will next enter. It's an effective way of conjuring multiple experiences. And like a puzzle we are kept guessing as to which of these two lovers West's character has fallen for. If, indeed, he has fallen for either of them. 

Once the play's structure is established – exit one lover, enter another as if the same scene was being simultaneously played with two different women in parallel universes – it's pretty obvious we've come to the theatre to watch what amounts to one man's dysfunctional love life.

I'm guessing the play will always have a future life because it's skillfully structured to be intriguing for most of its uninterrupted 75 minutes. But once solved, the puzzle of The River reveals an undercurrent of narcissistic male ego. The condition of the women is of no particular concern. They simply serve as baubles in a bloke’s play about the male psyche, which if I one of the girlfriends of Butterworth's hero, I think I'd find mildly insulting.

 


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