Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 16, 2014
The Royal Court Theatre Production of The River by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson. Design by Ultz. Lighting design by Charles Balfour. Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. Composed by Stephen Warbeck. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Donnelly, Cush Jumbo.
Not that the producers wanting Jackman is a surprise, mind you. It's not tough to imagine the movie-megastar, who despite headlining the X-Men franchise may be even more acclaimed in theatre circles for his arresting charisma and ability to flit effortlessly between splashy musicals (Oklahoma! in London in 1998, The Boy From Oz here in 2003) and trenchant drama (A Steady Rain, 2009), being the first name on everyone's list. He has a way, after all, of not only supercharging publicity and box office receipts, but living up to the hype that precedes him.
But when it was announced that he was returning to Broadway for the first time in three years in what sounded like a bewilderingly gentle three-hander, you couldn't help but think there had to be something special enough about this play to warrant his attention. As it turns out, there is. And if it's not exactly evident what Jackman brings to his role that another top-tier actor might not, he has no trouble with its challengesand those of the core conceit that ensure what could be a potentially derivative snoozer turns into an enigma you genuinely care about unwrapping.
Again, however, we run into the problem of not being able to say too much about what it is for fear of spoiling the uncertainty that makes it all work. What can be said without too much damage is that the action is set in a cozy, secluded fishing shack (Ultz is credited with the set and costume design, which manages to be both dreary and inviting), where an unnamed man (Jackman) has brought an unnamed woman (Cush Jumbo). They seem to be pretty intimate acquaintances, too, and you'd have no questions whatsoever about the nature of their partnership if not for the unsettling presence of a third woman (Laura Donnelly), who fits into the same schematic just a little too neatly.
What's soon addressed is that no one falls into or out of love the right wayassuming there is a right wayand that the most carefully considered plans can easily go awry. The promises the man makes to each of the women, and the fallout that results from them, are in touching in their essential innocence, which is no small achievement given how not innocent about anything the man clearly is. Yet he keeps making the same choices, and often the same mistakes, because his dream of perfection doesn't die even if it sometimes changes names and faces.
What at first may look like a weakness with the writing then becomes a key strength: the women, who aren't always well defined on their own, become strikingly specific in light of the overall arc of the man's life and the part each has played in it. No, much of the time you're not sure what that part isbut you find out when you need to, and Butterworth keeps upping the ante and increasing the tension right through the final scene, when the cyclicity of events delivers a stunning, completely satisfying payoff.
Rickson, who was last represented on Broadway in 2011 with Butterworth's Jerusalem, can't stage around all of the somewhat static earlier scenes, and there are times the level of intensity of the interactions could be pushed still further. But Rickson improves later, and becomes quite powerful indeed once the man and his women become fully embroiled in their situation. Regardless, Donnelly and Jumbo are outstanding throughout, the former bringing a cautious optimism and the latter a grudging world-weariness that instantly identify their characters within this world; they're totally different performers giving totally different performances, but you understand perfectly how they intertwine within the man's life.
Jackman plows through with his usual briohe couldn't turn off his innate electricity if he wanted toand he's easily believable as a charming juggler of women. But Jackman layers beneath this a sadness, even a dread, that tempers its impact; this is a man who feels more than he'll ever admit, so the externalities are ultimately meaningless. He's defined by what he's had and what he's lost, and Jackman injects this into every line with either woman. As you begin to realize he knows more than he's willing to tell, you see how Jackman is letting that reluctance seep into even the moments when pure honesty would be the best policy.
The man's laboring toward his own redemption, and fighting against his own failings, is compelling fuel, and Jackman ignites it beautifully. There are times, mostly in the silences (one scene where he's preparing a fish for dinner comes to mind), that he comes across as a bit too polished, which tugs at the credibility of him wanting to escape to so remote an area when the going gets serious. But even that adds more complexity: This man, who outwardly appears to have it all, can be a victim of circumstance, just like the rest of us.
That's much of what Butterworth is saying: that no one is immune from consequences, whether accidental or traditionally tragic, and no one is able to absolutely resist the allure of fairy talesthey keep us alive and keep us going just when we may most want to give up. For many, Jackman will be a good reason to see The River, but it's pointed and poignant enough on its own to be well worth the trip.