Though I am old with wandering, through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone, and kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass, and pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.
Having attended a number of Red Stitch productions in the past, I’ve almost come to expect that each time I make my way into the theatre I will be exposed to something truly special. Red Stitch has forged a reputation for itself as a company that stages performances that not only move the audience considerably, but also challenge them to rethink the role of theatre and more so the role of the audience to interpret and interact with theatre in various ways. I have no hesitation in saying that, once again, Red Stitch has honoured its own reputation with “The River”; a production written by Jez Butterworth and directed by John Kachoyan that reaches new levels of intimacy and sincerity for the company in presenting the story of a man and the woman he’s playing host to…whose relationship may not in truth be as sincere and unique as it first appears.
Before I explore the core of the piece, I’d first like to stress how masterfully constructed all elements of the show are in terms of its design and execution. Chloe Greaves in particular has done an incredible job in erecting the interior of a river cabin in the middle of the Red Stitch performance space. The attention to detail specifically is something to marvel at, the borders of the stage defined by a technique that sees the set literally cut off at a certain point resulting in sinks, sofas, bowls and even food perfectly sawed in half to stress the boundary between the universe of the play and those watching. This is just one of the ways in which the production physically asserts the confined nature of both the narrative and the environment in which the play is set. In fact, the attention to detail is something that remains constant throughout the entire production, with little things including the steam rising from an actual cooked fish in a dinner scene contributing massively to the show’s believability as well as emphasizing its strive for realism. The sound design by Christopher De Groot too deserves a mention, with various scenes in the play being underscored to construct a haunting atmosphere around the narrative’s most demanding moments. The use of Caroline Herring’s “Song of the Wandering Aengus” to bookend the show is similarly inspired, defining the tone of the piece from the offset.
At the heart of the show is a mystery that takes the entire duration to unravel. It’s incredibly compelling to be swept up into the enigma of a script and find yourself a part of it, slowly working to piece together the clues you are given to form a thorough understanding of what is actually going on. It is here the play really finds its strength, with a handful of “revelation moments” and scenes, with the characters’ break away from routine and acknowledgment of the insecurity of their narrative among the most powerful and moving parts of the piece. The play does invest a mammoth amount of attention and energy into the mystery of the narrative, which at times means that the focus is taken away from the individuality of its characters and the performances of its actors. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does run the risk of being slightly at odds with Red Stitch’s ongoing philosophy – branded as the “Actors Theatre”. In saying that however, the work of all three ensemble characters is something that cannot be discounted. Without ruining any of the surprises of the script, this is a play that requires a lot of its cast in terms of the way they interact with each other and the narrative. Dion Mills especially is challenged with the task of having to maintain a running dynamic with two different characters to instill a sense of stability in a totally non-linear plot, something that he achieves effortlessly. Both Ngaire Dawn Fair and Christina O’Neill too are astonishing to watch, exhibiting such a sincere and genuine amount of chemistry with Mills that remains concrete for the entire play. All three actors have managed to take this script and run with it, creating such an intimate and inclusive experience the audience can’t help but feel a part of.
One of the most telling aspects of great theatre is when a show makes bold and risky decisions. Theatre without risks is defined by a complete lack of flair and originality, it is one of the few art forms where “playing it safe” doesn’t secure a successful result. Thankfully, if there is one area where “The River” excels unquestionably, it would be its insistence in taking the road less travelled in providing audiences with a very different, but very fresh experience. Yes, “The River” is a production that takes a great amount of risks; and yes, not all of them pay off entirely – namely a fish gutting scene that is just a fraction longer than it needs to be, and an extended monologue on a character’s first catch that tries a little too hard to be a profound and emotive moment, but unfortunately falls just short. However, in a play that is as ambitious as this one, these shortcomings are necessary in cementing the intensity of the piece, and are overwhelmingly outweighed by the show’s successes.
Although “The River” doesn’t quite hit the bar set outrageously high by Red Stich’s “Splendour” earlier in the year, it still makes an incredibly successful contribution to the Theatre’s thriving 2016 season. Embodying the concept of “edge of your seat drama” effortlessly, the play keeps audiences guessing throughout its entire duration, before offering a resolution that is utterly rewarding and consistent with the tone of the piece. “The River” is a story that captures and personifies the void left by loneliness and heartbreak, exposing in equal measures the shallowness and genuine comfort found in intimate relationships. Once again, Red Stitch has produced a show that both challenges and enchants its audiences in the best ways possible.
Red Stitch’s season of “THE RIVER” closes on the 28th of May. You can find out more about the production as well as future plays and events on the theatre’s website here: http://redstitch.net