Butterworth Tries Swapping Lovers in ‘Jerusalem’ Sequel

'The River'
Miranda Raison and Dominic West in "The River" by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court Theatre. Tickets are only available on the day of performance at 9 a.m., with 30 further tickets available in person from the theater at 10 a.m. Tickets are restricted to two per customer. Photographer: John Haynes/Royal Court via Bloomberg

After the popular success of “Jerusalem” in London and New York, expectations are riding high on Jez Butterworth’s next play.

London’s Royal Court Theatre has even introduced a controversial new ticketing system to cope with the demand for seats.

“The River” is a deliberate attempt to play down those expectations. It’s an intimate three-hander running in the theater’s small 90-seat studio space. A fourth character, uncredited, speaks just a few lines at the end.

The Man (Dominic West) has brought his new blonde girlfriend The Woman (Laura Donnelly) to his remote log cabin near a river. They squabble playfully about a proposed night-time fishing trip.

Returning from the trip alone, The Man calls the police in a panic. He’s lost The Woman, who has disappeared in the darkness. Suddenly, there’s a voice. Phew! She’s returned. He greets her with relief.

Only it isn’t The Woman. It’s The Other Woman (Miranda Raison). She’s dark-haired, where The Woman was blonde. Neat, eh?

The scene continues almost as if this new person had been the participant in the previous scene. Thereafter, each time one Woman leaves -- to go to the bathroom, say, or to look for a Symbolically Significant Object (there are plenty of those, it’s that sort of play) -- another returns, and continues almost as if nothing had happened.

Tearing Clothes

Nothing much does happen, in fact. The three anonymous, capitalized People discuss falling in love. They helpfully tell each other things that have just happened between them in long gobs of exposition. “Do you remember...? You kissed my neck.” “We tore off our clothes.” “You blushed and you laughed.” “You sighed.”

Many dramatists would think it more fun to actually show a couple tearing off their clothes, or blushing, or laughing. If you think it might also be more fun to see, then this really isn’t the play for you.

No, this is irrealism, which is a sort of misty version of surrealism. Links between cause and effect are ambiguous, though not completely severed. Memories are unreliable. Questions are answered with other questions.

(For a long, hard dose of irrealism at its most undiluted, try Kazuo Ishiguro’s unreadable novel “The Unconsoled” and let me know how you get on.)

Why Worry

The trouble with this sort of dramatic language is that the further the Central Trio move into irreality, the harder it becomes to care about them. When cause and effect aren’t meaningfully linked, why should we worry about the consequences of their actions?

By the time The Woman finally says, referring to The Other Woman, “What happened to her? Where did she go? Did she even exist?” you might consider poking a fish-hook into your side as a more cheerful alternative to waiting for the predictably ambiguous answer.

The acting is good. West (of “The Wire”) delivers a long monologue about fishing without stumbling. Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly inject some pep into their fey, ambiguous roles.

The play runs for 80 minutes, though thanks to Ian Rickson’s direction (there are a few too many silent scenes of cooking, clearing up, lighting candles and the like) it feels longer.

Tickets are only available on the day, limited to two per person. They go on sale at 9 a.m. online, and there are 30 more available at 10 a.m. at the theater.

Critics have suggested this will encourage ticket touting. Maybe. Or maybe demand won’t be as intense as expected after all. Rating: **.

“The River” runs at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS, through Nov. 17. Information: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/the-river or +44-20-7222-1234.

What The Stars Mean:
*****       Excellent
****        Recommended
***         Average
**          Poor
*           Bad
(No stars)  Worthless

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, John Mariani on wine and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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