“You will try to remember. How you felt. You’ll try to be back there. To live it again. But you can’t get back there. You can never go back.”
Cripes. They say you should never go back (so obviously I booked two Royal Court transfers that I’ve already seen for this trip to Broadway) and this one proved to be a case in point. Jez Butterworth’s The River was the talk of the town when it opened at the Royal Court Upstairs back in 2012, mainly because of the ridiculous booking system that meant there were no advance tickets available. And when it opened recently on Broadway, all the chat was similarly diverted from the play at hand by Hugh Jackman’s biceps and a raft of articles about audience (mis)behaviour.
Which is a shame, as it is a strikingly poetic piece of theatre, intriguingly and obtusely written by Butterworth as an opaque study of masculinity and relationships and mystery and trout-fishing. I enjoyed it considerably in London but was quite happy to give it a miss in NY until I found out Cush Jumbo had been cast in this production, an odd choice perhaps, given the location, but a tempting one for me as I’ve much enjoyed her work. Too tempting as it turned out, as it over-rode the misgivings I had about returning to the show, which were apparent upon the moment I took my seat.
Spoiled as I was by seeing it in the intimacy of the Royal Court Upstairs, the contrasting cavernous space of the Circle in the Square (which seats about 10 times as many people, 70-odd versus 700-odd) was just wrong. All of the strangeness and sensuousness and interconnectedness that Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly cooked up alongside that trout is missing here, drained away by the acres of space that Ian Rickson’s direction never seems able to recapture at any point during the short running time.
Creatively the show remains on point – Ultz’s rustic set, Charles Balfour’s moody lighting and the rural tics of Ian Dickinson’s textured sound design all expand well for this auditorium. But the performances aren’t carried with it – Jackman falls back too easily on the elusiveness of The Man whose relationship(s) lie at the heart of the play as he takes first one woman, and then another out to his cabin to make a declaration of love. Or does he? This ambiguity is key to the play as the fluid nature of time becomes a crucial point but without any nub of something concrete or pointed, The Man becomes a blank space which is far from the same thing.
Against that, Jumbo and Donnelly (reprising her role) can’t help but fall flat to some extent, working hard to try and cultivate the atmosphere that made the show so compelling on first viewing but ultimately failing. I really wonder what I would have made of this play had this been the first production I’d seen, without any prior knowledge, as it really did feel like a completely different beast and a much less effective one for it.