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