After Jerusalem, can Jez Butterworth's new play live up to the hype?

He wrote the most critically adored British play in decades. Now, Butterworth’s long-awaited follow-up, The River, is set to open at the Royal Court.

One of the most eagerly anticipated plays of the year, starring Dominic West and Miranda Raison, has its official opening tomorrow night in the tiny Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court. Tickets for each day's performance are released online at 9am, with 30 places held at the box office for purchase in person that morning, one hour later.

What's the big deal? West and Raison are box-office stars, sure, but this is something else: The River is Jez Butterworth's first play in three years, his first since Jerusalem, in which Mark Rylance stormed the West End, Broadway, then the West End again, as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, the rollicking Lord of Misrule reawakening legends of old Albion on the boundary line of a dark forest and a new housing estate.

Jerusalem, and Rylance's performance, triggered something primal and atavistic in our culture and sense of nationhood. It was probably the biggest "new play" experience since Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer, Joan Plowright as Beatie Bryant in Arnold Wesker's Roots, Donald Pleasence as Davies in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, or Anthony Hopkins as Lambert Le Roux in Pravda by David Hare and Howard Brenton.

And it's had an impact you can feel everywhere, if only in the lack of it still being on. Danny Boyle's opening ceremony at the Olympic Games, digging deep into Shakespearean mythologies in the pre- and post-industrial revolution, was obviously influenced by Jerusalem. And there was a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park this summer which showed the faery world pushing up powerfully through the urban colonisation of the countryside by a shopping mall and a gypsy caravan encampment.

So how does Butterworth follow all that? Details on the new play are scant to say the least: it has three nameless characters (the Belfast-born actress Laura Donnelly takes the other role), lasts barely an hour, takes place "in a shack at night" and is inspired by Butterworth's favourite hobby – fishing. So the answer to the question is that he probably doesn't. He merely resumes a strain of brilliant, mystical, funny and emotionally investigative writing that he's worked at for 20 years.

Everything about his plays came into spectacular focus with Jerusalem, but his cards have been on the table since his dazzling Royal Court debut with Mojo in 1995. That play, which looked at sex, drugs, rock'*'roll and gang warfare in 1950s Soho, was a startling mixture of Pulp Fiction and Espresso Bongo, but it had a distinctive quality all of its own. The critics sat up, Harold Pinter approved (and, after appearing in the film version of Mojo, became a friend and mentor to Butterworth)… and the author disappeared into pubs and film studios for the next seven years.

The director and designer of Mojo, Ian Rickson and Ultz, knew their man and were prepared to wait. With his screenwriting brothers (Butter- worth is one of five siblings who grew up on an estate on the edge of St Albans, all of whom, rather like the posher Fiennes tribe, went into show business) he dived into Hollywood, producing one fairly good movie of his own, Birthday Girl (2001), starring Nicole Kidman as a mail-order Russian bride, and rewriting others.

He was stuck, basically, but changed his life completely, or re-ordered it, when, with his partner (they later had two children, both girls), he moved from the city to the country, and started up a smallholding of chickens and pigs. "Walking through woods and by rivers for at least an hour every day for five years," he said, "changed the way I write." He dedicated Jerusalem to his wife. The River is dedicated to his sister, who died two weeks ago.

The first sightings of Butterworth were at Cambridge University and on the Edinburgh Festival fringe in the early 1990s. His pre-Mojo collaborative fringe work included some satirical sketch-based stuff about show business and, incredibly, a faithful transcription of Katharine Whitehorn's minor classic Cooking in a Bedsitter.

It goes to show that if you want to write theatre, write anything at all until you find out what it is you should be doing. And seven years after Mojo came, at long last, The Night Heron (2002), his second Royal Court play (Rickson was now the artistic director in succession to Stephen Daldry), a strange, mysterious piece about two former college gardeners (one of them played by Ray Winstone) and their lodger, a sort of angelic witch.

This curious convocation tapped into a hinterland of incipient violence, rumours of Satanism in the scout movement, poetry competitions and Biblical imagery. It was the first of the "outdoors" plays, scenes of mystery and encroachment, of rare sightings (the night heron of the title), of buried legend and forgotten ritual.

It is surely no coincidence that, while waiting for Butterworth, Rickson had premiered two plays by Conor McPherson – The Weir (1998) and Dublin Carol (2000) – which were obsessed with drink, death and the supernatural in a secular, rural and pre-industrial Irish setting. The ley lines for Butterworth were now clearer, and Pinter was thrown into the mix, too, with The Winterling (2006) which followed. This new play, which attracted another top cast (Roger Lloyd Pack as a hobo cook scrounging his way round the West Country; Daniel Mays as a gangland fugitive; Sally Hawkins as a loud-mouthed moll) used a Pinter-ish template to re-draw lines of power and territorial aggression among a bunch of East End hoods on the edge of Dartmoor.

Positively accelerating towards his date with dramatic destiny, it was now only three years before Butterworth enjoyed his annus mirabilis, 2009. When Parlour Song opened at the Almeida in March (Rickson directing, Jeremy Herbert designing), I said that it would take a truly exceptional one to improve upon it as the best play of that year. And although Jerusalem undoubtedly did that, big-time, in July, with its St George's Day (and Shakespeare's birthday) setting in the glorious woodland glade, its cast of 14 actors, its three long acts rolling over three short hours and Rylance as the dragon in his cave holding the local council officers at bay with his booze-ups and stories (remember the one about how he'd been kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens in Marlborough town centre?), the smaller-scale Parlour Song was a bit of a gem, too.

Again, the Pinter-ish template, perhaps echoing Old Times in the lustrous, floating figure of a wife and lover (played by Amanda Drew) shuttling between her husband and his best friend (Andrew Lincoln) – also the play's narrator – who had clocked her carnally in a car's rear mirror in his garage. A domestic show-down was the opposite of a suburban idyll, again pressing at the edge of a dark forest. Toby Jones played the husband, a demolition expert trying to build up his own sexual performance while he laid waste to the landscape. Jones executed two of the funniest sequences I've ever seen in a theatre: firstly, when he practised an oral sex routine to an instruction soundtrack, pretending it was something else; and secondly, a full physical work-out in shorts and vest, limbs going in all the wrong directions while his little body weakened with every effort.

When we come to The River – "a remote cabin on the cliffs, a man and a woman, and a moonless night," says the terse blurb – we must expect more physical action, perhaps reported rather than undertaken, but a sense, also, of a pantheistic surge in the waters and the undergrowth, a feeling of the old world fighting back and claiming its place in our lives. For like King Lear, and Rooster in Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth "will pray, and sing, and tell old tales… and take upon's the mystery of things."

'The River', Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (tickets released each day at 9am online at royalcourttheatre.com and at the box office from 10am) to 17 November

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice