After Jerusalem, where next?

He wrote the most critically adored British play in decades. Now, as Jez Butterworth's long-awaited follow-up, The River, opens at the Royal Court, Michael Coveney wonders if it can live up to the hype

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The Independent Online

The new play takes place in a shack at night and is inspired by fishing

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. He dedicated Jerusalem to his wife. The River is dedicated to his dog.

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 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 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) that followed.

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 and Ultz still in charge), I said that it would take a truly exceptional one to improve upon it as the best play of that year. And although Jerusalem did that, big-time, in July, 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 (Toby Jones) 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. 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.

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".

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