Red Stitch’s latest production is The River by British playwright Jez Butterworth, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2012. Butterworth eschews urban setting for his works; Red Stitch presented The Wintering a couple of years ago which was also set in a rural environment. The River takes place in a cabin in a remote village; the production is mysterious and atmospheric, beautifully rendered with loving attention to the language and mood of the text. The set is a departure from the usual set up at Red Stitch: the action happens in the middle of the theatre with the audience on each side as though on the banks of a river, an improvement in terms of acoustics in the space, thankfully, because the production is accompanied by an exquisite soundscape by Christopher de Groote. The lighting comes from some surprising sources, adding to the evocative atmosphere, hinting at hidden undercurrents.
The story is about a man (Dion Mills) who takes his new girlfriend (Ngaire Dawn Fair) to a cabin by a river, to introduce her to the meditative joy of fly fishing for sea trout under a moonless night when the fish are ‘running’. The Man quotes Yeats’ poem The Song of the Wandering Aengus, and describes the colours of the sunset, presenting himself as a sensitive soul in love, although his actual behavior towards the woman is oddly gruff and restrained in tenderness. I wasn’t convinced by the chemistry between the two, and with Fair’s character striving for open-heartedness unmet on some deeper level, you’re left wondering about their initial attraction; Mills is a tad off-key in terms of the charisma and allure you’d expect from the Man in this instance. Despite his use of language his character is associated with elements of the raw and ritualistic: we watch him gut and prepare an actual fish on stage, something oddly mesmerising. Dawn Fair’s expressiveness is wonderful to watch, she's strong and insistent on stage yet with subtelty and stunning timing. Pacing is beautiful thanks to direction by John Kachoyan.
The River is a crowd-pleaser: riveting, mysterious and engaging, leaving audiences to draw their own conclusions about the true nature of the relationship it presents. There are symbols and motifs eddying and repeating throughout the text (a drawing, a pair of gold earrings, a chunk of glittering black onyx, but the actual play itself veers towards an entertaining tense psychological thriller, rather than a deeper comment on human interactions.
My companion said the play reminded her of the Nick Cave/Kylie Minogue duet Where the Wild Roses Grow; she’s not the first to make that observation.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
by Jez Butterworth
Directed by John Kachoyan
Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre | Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East, Vic
Dates: 26 April – 28 May 2016