Through its watery metaphors, Jez Butterworth’s play The River reflects on how our idealised memories of the past can prevent us from flowing with life in the present. Although a short performance, it feels broad thanks to numerous literary and musical allusions. Tom Bristow tracks these through the recent, brilliant production by Durham-based Elysium Theatre Company, directed by Jake Murray.
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
– from W.B. Yeats, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’
Lyrics by W.B. Yeats open and close The River. The poem invokes love, loss and longing as inflected through the Celtic god of love and beauty, Aengus, who roams the ‘hollow lands and hilly lands’ for his past love. Fidelity was a key term of reference in Yeats’s early writing, born out of his unrequited feelings of commitment and devotion to Maud Gonne.
In this vein, ‘The Man’ (played by Danny Solomon) is a deeply ambiguous, almost unbelievable, character caught up in the contours of lost love that lead only to disappointment. We find this intensely passionate, solitary person working his way through two potential partners, ‘The Woman’ and ‘The Other Woman’, to see if they meet with his idea of a lover, as defined by one particular past woman. Like his uncle before him, he takes them to a remote, rural landscape for a weekend in his cabin; while his uncle simply used the living quarters as a place to have consensual but meaningless sexual relations, ‘The Man’ is trapped there in a profound ritual, of the sort the play urges us to avoid.
His desire for fulfilment is partly satisfied by his connection to the landscape’s energies – particularly catching sea trout on a moonless night – but he has been caught up in a strange and troubling pursuit of love that is not open to the idiosyncrasies of each new individual he brings to share this experience. We see two women in the hypermasculine cabin, their historical interlaced: act 1 with ‘The Woman’ (Hannah Ellis Ryan), act 2 ‘The Other Woman’ (Lois Mackie), each one eating and walking, repeating each other’s conversations, drinking, and discovering a special box of items. The box includes a drawing of a woman in a scarlet dress with her face scratched out. The dress is in the box, too. The drawing is of the room they are in with ‘The Man’. To say any more would be to spoil your enjoyment of a love story, on the edge of a ghost story, that emerges into a Mobius strip of a play.
Yeats’s poem is one of many intertexts in this play: Florence + The Machine’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and Jeff Buckley’s ‘Mojo Pin’ enhance the audience’s sense of what inner resources are required to ‘leave all your love and your longing behind’ on the one hand, and what it is to be pinned down by the gravitational pull of ‘the memories fire’, on the other. An early clash between The Woman’s desire to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Man’s desire to take her fishing for sea trout ends with a reading of Ted Hughes’ poem that watermarks the play through its metaphor of contagion:
I waded, deepening, and the fish
listened for me. They watched my each move
through their magical skins. In the stillness
their eyes waited, furious with gold brightness,
their gills moved. And in their thick sides
the power waited. And in their torpedo
concentration, their mouth-aimed intent,
their savagery waited, and their explosion.
They waited for me. The whole river
listened to me, and, blind,
invisibly watched me. And held me deeper
with its blind, invisible hands.
‘We’ve got him,’ it whispered, ‘We’ve got him.’
– ‘After Moonless Midnight’
This poem embodies the unnerving, holistic experience of The River’s watery world. Hughesian motifs pepper the play’s engagement with dark night, horses, fish, moon and no moon. (The audience might also be aware that a companion poem to this, Hughes’s ‘Last Letter’, records a night of infidelity while Hughes’s partner, Sylvia Plath, commits suicide.)
Such is the alchemy of Jez Butterworth’s intertextual play. In one of a number of compelling scenes, the siren-like qualities of Jeff Buckley’s falsetto voice on a radio background the ritual of gutting a fish. There is no dialogue in this scene – just the memory of a voice given over to the depths of love and natural elements, reminding us of the opening song of Yeats and the pagan country culture that surrounds the cabin.
Like the suspended action of the fish in Hughes’ poem, the cabin is still; the people move through it. Danny Solomon plays the part of ‘The Man’ perfectly, fitting his physique to the ‘torpedo concentration’ of Butterworth’s character. Hannah Ellis Ryan finds the space between independence and dependence in her subtle treatment of ‘The Woman’, with her ambition to meet the right person. Lois Mackie casts her magic over the many moods Butterworth wishes to extract from the potentially static and idealised ‘The Other Woman’. Amy Gavin adds yet another layer of feminist comportment to the palimpsest figure in her too short but magical ‘Another Woman’.
We are beginning to witness the British stage address the relation between emotion and moral consideration of the environment, which partly stems from the sincerity with which we reflect upon the question of the autonomy of nature. Butterworth’s premise stems from the sincerity behind our consideration of others. The River is a mysterious piece of writing, ambiguous in terms of genre, ethically elliptical and yet structurally simple, like pastoral. Butterworth has written two of the most exciting plays this century: Jerusalem and The Ferryman. Compared with those mythical plays, The River is conducted in a minor key.
Presented in the North East for the first time since its London premiere in 2012, this production by Elysium Theatre Company offers a curious geometry of desire by keeping close to the enigmatic, lyrical qualities of Butterworth’s script. It is incredibly exciting to see a local theatre company put on such a challenging play with such grace and modesty. While director Jake Murray get into the heart of Butterworth’s script, he also works just outside what was stipulated by the playwright. One example of this: ‘a woman’s voice’ is the direction for the framing song in Butterworth’s original script. But for this production, Elysium Theatre Company commissioned Emily Chow-Waters – a local university student – to compose the music upon which a local actress, Laura Littlewood, sings. The net effect is high-quality drama minutes away from Durham market place that breaks new ground in community engagement.
Elysium Theatre Company are resident at Durham University’s Assembly Rooms theatre. Their next production will be Miss Julie in March 2019.