There’s no doubt in my mind that for theater fanatics in London, The River was the event of the year: a new play by one of the writers with the biggest buzz in the biz, yet staged in a theater that only holds about 90 people, and with tickets only for sale on the day (20 for in-person buyers and the rest online). Me and my theater loving acquaintances were not pleased. Many of us saw it as a publicity stunt; most of us doubted the play could really only be successful in a small space (was Butterworth really being that much of a princess?); some spent months planning their schemes to ensure they could get a ticket (I’ll admit the day of scheme took care of most scalping possibilities) while many of us just figured it wasn’t going to happen. I, personally, saw this as the lynchpin in letting my membership of the Royal Court lapse despite generally enjoying the work done there. What was the point in supporting a theater that would leave me, as a member, completely out in the cold? I was so disappointed by the whole thing I put it entirely out of my mind as something that just wasn’t going to happen.
Months went by, the show opened, and exactly twice early on I was at my computer at the right time and actually saw the “for sale” button lit up on the Royal Court’s ticket page. But somehow I just couldn’t be quick enough. A few people I knew went and said it was good; the reviews came out and agreed; I gave up because I hadn’t left every day of the run open in the hope that one of those days I would buy tickets and just got on with my life.
And then, well, a friend of mine said he had a tip about how to work the computer system to get to the tickets about 10 seconds faster than anyone else, and on the last Thursday of the run I managed to have an afternoon free and have my act together enough to be right there, online, perfectly at the moment I needed to to have my sweet little booking scam ready to go (one of the tips being to make sure you were already logged in). Bang bang, I was off to a matinee of the show I thought I was never going to get to see! I could finally decide for myself if a one act play was really worth the hype.
Embarrassingly (given what a grinch I was about the whole thing), without the poison of the ticketing system hanging over me, there is no way I can deny that this was anything but an excellently written play, beautifully performed. I found the writing left me with more questions that it answered, one of my favorite situations to be left at at the end of the play. The Hemingway-like dialogue was very intense and paired nicely with Ted Hughes poetry (and of course the fishing setting, and the general hypermasculinity of the play and its lead character), but what I wanted to know was: did someone die here? Was it one of the women? Did he push her in the river (and why), or did she fall? The echoing nature of the play just made it all seem so possible, and seem so very likely that the way the two women interchanged with each other was because one was a ghost. What Butterworth couldn’t teach Conor McPherson about how to write a spooky play! But then, I wondered … was the guy just living with his memories? Or was he maybe, as he said his grandfather did, reliving the same behavior patterns with different people, stuck in a loop he could never break out of?
The play ended, leaving me surprised and exhilarated. None of my theories could be proven, but it had all seemed very real and was enlessly watchable (and an amusing counterpoint to the similarly structured Ding Dong The Wicked, which I saw barely a month before). British playwrights, Jez spanks you: watch and learn at the feet of the master.
(This very belated review is for a performance seen on Thursday, November 15th, 2012. Since the play is long closed, I didn’t worry about spoilering it. Thanks to Andy for helping me get in.)