A remote cabin on a moonless midnight.
The swirling waters of a river holds a bewitching power over a man (Dominic West) as he hopes to impress his girlfriend (Miranda Raison) on a fishing holiday in his cabin on the cliffs.
Isolation, omens and the mystique of nature - Jez Butterworth’s new play The River at the Royal Court is reminiscent of the famous opening line by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton: "It was a dark and stormy night".
Instead Butterworth gives us an equally portentous sunset the night after a storm.
"Blood red as far as the headland, turning to lilac-blue wisps," our unnamed protagonist describes the evening sky to his girlfriend without looking out the window, unromantic about a vista seen from his cabin countless times. He is more interested in what is to follow; a cool moonless night heralding the migration of the sea trout and a night angler's dream.
Following enormous success with award-winning plays Mojo and Jerusalem, both at the Royal Court, Butterworth succeeds in leading us down a dark lane of meandering narrative in The River. We never quite know the source of uneasiness brought about by this seemingly picturesque hideaway for a courting couple.
Losing each other in the water of the river, the woman is eventually reunited with the man at the cabin, although she is strikingly altered (played by Laura Donnelly).
The River explores the complex depths of relationships. Can we ever truly know we have the heart of our partner? Are words enough?
Donnelly holds the stage with natural playfulness and teasing seduction, yet an air of quiet menace keeps the audience on edge. West's energetic earnestness pulls together the thread of the story.
Each encounter with the wild landscape surrounding the couple's cabin is like a portentous dark omen: white swans, a jet black horse. Butterworth's naturalistic dialogue moves to whimsical description, presumably as we travel deeper into the psyche of his characters. Despite sounding pleasing to the ear, the symbolism and earnest discussion become too dense in parts, never quite giving us the answers we need.
Director Ian Rickson draws out incredible suspense with well placed periods of silence, including a full five minutes in which West guts a real fish on stage - a simple cooking session becomes eerily uneasy. The candle-lit stage of Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs creates the intimate atmosphere of campfire storytelling.
As we come to terms with darker days and chillier nights, The River is a fitting outing for those in the mood to embrace Halloween, welcome the bare trees of winter and pull a blanket up to their chin on a moonless night at the Royal Court.
The River is running at the Royal Court, London, 18 Oct 2012 - 17 Nov 2012.
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Written by: Matthew Tucker
The River, Royal Court Theatre
4 / 5 stars