“The River,” which is currently playing every second day at C on Chambers Street, is described in the Fringe literature as being the “latest” play from the acclaimed playwright Jez Butterworth. Yet it is not in fact new, having been first performed in London in 2012.
The play puts the instinct of the hunter on stage. This is, to look at, not an especially noble or dramatic instinct. “The River” has a hushed, profoundly bare appearance: a Man (Ed Barr-Sim) talks quietly with a Woman or an alternating Other Woman in a log cabin, on his family’s rural estate, late into the evening. His quarry is not a ferocious animal (there is none of the naffness of Cecil the lion here) but sea trout. The Man is infatuated with hunting these creatures and his story swells into a deep and spacious drama. You can drink up its intensity in great draughts. It is also hugely sexy.
“The River” is, in other words, about as politically correct as Ernest Hemingway. The old brute is prowling about everywhere in this play, behind the scenery and making eyes at the audience. Hunting represents, for the Man, a drive for authenticity, a privileged entrance to the world of creatures that crackle and detonate like electricity. Or, as one of the girls puts it, fish which pull at you like you have your sleeve caught in the door of a bus. Those idiots who think that fish can suffer are not given a moment’s credence, but it is still quite obvious that the Man is essentially a fascist. He worships power and he seems to dote over even his own fears and humiliations because they connect him, if only by virtue of antithesis, to the power of the sea trout.
He is less successful with women. The play implies that a different woman is invited every year to his retreat to fish on a certain moonless night, but that he can never share the enormity of his passion with them. Nor can they, as lovers, achieve an emotional release which is bigger than this enormity. In the hands of a different actor or another writer, the Man’s story would skirt perilously close to comedy. His obsession with fishing might look middle-aged and unglamorous, recalling that of the Woman’s father who had fled to the riverbank to get away from his family. The Man might appear to be obscurely bigoted; we might toy unsatisfactorily with a lame fishing metaphor about his struggles to hook a woman. “The River” sheds this interpretive dubiousness. The Man fails because he approaches the women intellectually rather than with the instinct of a hunter. Even so, it is impossible, or at least unrealistic, that the fascistic glamour of the trout hunt could be imposed on to his emotional life.
Both of the women on stage are very sensual and sexy. I don’t usually comment on these things, but it here seems to be a strong part of this play’s aesthetic. The Man is sometimes a control-freak, sometimes aloof and bored, and sometimes unexpectedly tender, but he is always Byronic, a smouldering aristocrat in his castle. Our sense that his treatment of the girls is entirely a formula, something which is mindlessly replayed year after year, is lessened by a ghostly disruption to the story. One of the girls sees a vision of a strange barefooted woman when out walking in the country. This image gradually acquires a nagging significance. Maybe she was the Man’s first lost love?
The writing is occasionally rather too exuberant. We are told about a “chapel of a cloud” and a dying fish which thrashes about “like God’s tongue.” In an odd way, however, these lines give the play extra credibility. DH Lawrence was always writing nonsense like this and it was usually taken as a sign of urgency, urgency about the most vital things in life.
So yes, I’m biting. In fact, I’ve fallen fish hook and line.