By Simon Fearn
Could Jez Butterworth be replacing Tom Stoppard in Durham students’ affections? Just a week after Parlour Song, The River is set to show a very different side to a playwright who ‘quite a lot of people think is the greatest British playwright of the century so far’ (Tom Wills, director).
Wills first saw the 2012 play at the Edinburgh Fringe, and relished the opportunity to direct it in Durham. One of the major attractions was the play’s enigmatic quality. ‘The audience are playing the detective,’ Wills explains. ‘There are lots of moments when we’re trying to think about what it could mean, but some of our theories are so far-fetched that they would be too hard to portray on stage.’
The premise appears to be simple: The Man (Jack Whitmore) takes The Woman (Olivia Ballantine-Smith) on a romantic weekend of fishing and fornication. It slowly becomes apparent that The Woman is part of a long line of women that have been taken to the cabin, including The Other Woman (Yasmin Jones). ‘The Man is a romantic character,’ Whitmore tells me. ‘He’s very passionate, very lyrical, very poetic, but he’s also very manipulative. Each scene is almost a game and a chase where he wants something.’ Despite this predatory aspect to his character, the audience’s relationship with The Man should be more complicated than mere disgust. ‘I’m going to try and make him someone you can sympathise with, but hopefully the audience will be unsure if they want to,’ Whitmore concludes.
The two women, on the other hand, are ‘very different, but they have similarities, which really came out after we’d done a full run’ recalls Jones. ‘The Man definitely has a type!’ Neither woman is clearly preferred, and Wills explains that ‘we are always trying to figure out if there has been a woman who’s the most important woman who’s ever been in his life.’ ‘The chronology of the scenes isn’t clear,’ adds Whitmore to complicate matters further. ‘There are links between the two women, and it could well be that the Other Woman came first.’
Not only are the two women competing against each other for The Man’s affections, but they often also come second to his passion for fishing. In fact, ‘it’s not just about fishing’ has become something of a rallying cry for the cast and crew. If this is the case, then, is the fishing symbolic? ‘There’s the very obvious fishing for women, reeling them in, plenty of fish in the sea, all of that,’ hazards Wills, ‘but I think it’s deeper than that.’ The answer may lie in the way the play opens and closes with Yeats’ ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, ‘a very old Irish tale about a man who catches a fish and it turns into a woman, and he then loses her. That poem is possibly the starting point for Jez Butterworth.’
Whatever the deeper meaning of fishing in the play, the way Butterworth presents his themes is something to marvel at. Whitmore is a particular fan of Butterworth’s language. ‘If you take away the fucks, it’s very lyrical,’ he begins. ‘The monologues are beautifully written, and they really should draw the audience in. I can imagine exactly what’s happening, and hopefully the audience can too.’ ‘It’s not just the language, it’s the rhythm,’ Jones elaborates. ‘There are full stops in all sorts of places, which make it quite difficult to learn, but it sounds beautiful when it’s read like that.’ This really comes across in rehearsal, when an argument about the validity of using Monster Munch to catch a fish still manages to take on a poetic significance.
Getting the balance right when deciding how far to take Butterworth’s naturalism was another challenge for the team. ‘I know that Dominic West spent about twenty five minutes cooking fish at the Royal Court,’ Wills tells me, whilst reassuring us that audiences should not expect such lengthy dinner preparations in this production. ‘It’s naturalistic, and it does take me half an hour to cook my dinner,’ he concedes. ‘Our set is very realist as well,’ adds Anna Haines (Assistant Director). ‘It should seem, as much as possible, like people walking around in their own home.’ And, as an added bonus, the production also boasts original music composed by Angus Macnaughton, something Wills in particular is very excited about.
The lasting impression is of a play almost impossible to pin down. Much of the work Wills and Haines are doing in rehearsal is to tone things down and add extra layers of subtlety, so we can expect a very nuanced performance at the Assembly Rooms. All involved have clearly put a lot of thought into unravelling Butterworth’s elusive text, and from what I’ve seen, audiences will be entranced by a show with a different pace than many recent Durham productions.
Photograph: Lucinda Ellaway-Bell
‘The River’ will run from Wed 16th to Fri 18th Mar. Book your tickets here.