First Night: The River, Royal Court Theatre, London

4.00

Lyrical and sublime, Butterworth’s triumph is the hottest ticket in town

Short of setting himself on fire in the Royal Albert Hall, it’s hard to see what Jez Butterworth could have done as an encore commensurate with the stonking transatlantic triumph of Jerusalem.

So it’s perhaps no great surprise to find the author working at the opposite end of the scale from that anarchic state-of-the-nation drama now in The River, his much-anticipated follow-up play, which opened last night. The fact that Butterworth has insisted – on artistic grounds – that this new piece should be premiered in the Royal Court’s 90-seat Theatre Upstairs means the show is a hot ticket for more reasons than one. The Court has instituted a policy whereby tickets can be purchased only on the day of performance.

So the first thing I should say, having now seen Ian Rickson’s spellbinding, exquisitely modulated production, is that getting into The River is well worth any additional hassle you may have to go through with the booking. Lyrical and tricksy, occasionally droll and ultimately desolating, this intimate three-hander unfolds like a tantalising cross between a piece of deeply felt poetry and a sleight-of-hand puzzle.

On a moonless night in August when the salmon trout are ready to run, Dominic West’s bearded, hunky unnamed Man brings his new girlfriend (a feisty, ironic but underlyingly vulnerable Miranda Raison) to the remote family cabin where he has come for the fly-fishing since he was a boy. She is jokily reluctant to be initiated into the sport or to listen to his rhapsodies about its moments of electric, almost mystical intensity (“It’s like catching a lightning bolt. It’s like jamming your finger into a socket.”). And she’s narked when he dismisses the beauty of the sunset (“They’re all the same”) and invents a bravura, all-purpose description that parodies the idea of quiddity.

His mockery is somewhat paradoxical for, in matters of love, it emerges that the man has a compulsive need to create the illusion that a woman is uniquely special to him. The play becomes mountingly haunted by echoes of previous, supposedly once-in-a-lifetime visits and by the recurring motifs of the man’s duplicity (framed drawings, say, of women with their faces crossed out) and by the ambivalent imagery of reflections in water.

In its pacing, Rickson’s production is beautifully responsive to the musicality of the play’s patterning and Dominic West turns in a compellingly layered performance as the Man. It’s agonising when he tells Laura Donnelly’s raven-haired, mischievous and searchingly speculative Other Woman that he will be a ghost making love to a succession of impostors if she leaves him. This is not just on account of the dreadful way his deceptions get through the rational defences of his victims. It’s because you feel that there’s a hunger for honesty but that he is helpless to stop these inauthenticities. Plus, you reckon that this serial liar has a weakness for being found out.

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