Redstitch have shaken things up with their latest production, “The River”, with a new entrance, revamped seating plan and a dark, mystifying tale of obsessive routine, fishing and love. Written by English playwright, film director and screenwriter of Sceptre and Black Mass, Jez Butterworth is well known to Redstitch audiences with premieres of his earlier works, “The Night Heron” and “The Winterling” in 2004 and 2008 respectively which also depicted isolated settings. Harold Pinter is a confirmed influence on his work and this play is a great example of the inclusion of threatening implications and pauses for effect. To this practical end, John Kachayan solidly steers the ship as director, using all his prior experience as assistant director for Bell Shakespeare, VCA and NIDA, as well as staging Midsummer at Redstitch back in 2012 to create a tightly controlled and beguiling mystery.
Entry into the theatre has shifted to the left hand side, through an aquarium like tunnel, complete with hanging fish hooks and submerged river current noises. It’s a clever way to submerge us into the world of this strange and shady fishing holiday hideaway. The seating has also changed and been rebuilt to form two sides around an even smaller stage space suggesting some clever directional movement in order to engage both sides of the tiered boat as it were. And it works, the sparse cabin like interior designed by Chloe Greaves contains only the practical essentials for a fishing holiday shack – table, couch, bookcase, oven, sink, hooks and notably settings for only two. Nothing distracts and we are right there in the strange abode of the unnamed Man (ensemble actor Dion Mills) as he brings for the first time a new love, an unnamed Woman (ensemble actor Ngaire Dawn Fair) to his childhood hangout. Clever lighting choices by designer Clare Springett add to the almost unnatural, shadowy atmosphere with lamplights, candles and pitch black blackouts in between scenes. The soundscape by Christopher DeGroot is equally eerie and really reminds us of the remote location so near the dark depths of the river with its gurgling and haunting composition that greatly build the tension through this 90minute no interval piece.
Mills completely embodies a man comfortable with nature and poetry, though perhaps not entirely with women. His soothing, resonant baritone voice lulls us in and his deft hand at gutting and preparing a sea trout for dinner like he has done this many, many times before is extremely spellbinding. He successfully conveys a man who likes routine, still gets excited by midnight fishing expeditions, feels genuine concern for the whereabouts of his guest yet interestingly, cares little for her fascinations – no sunset gazing for him. Small lines or gestures (a table moved here or the seemingly strange need to read the Ted Hughes poem exactly right) give early clues about his disquieting nature. The switch into the second scene and the entrance of another dark-haired women (ensemble actor Christina O’Neill) confirm this rising concern and we see parts of the routine replayed again with slight variation. It is at this point the audience realises time is not linear and are then privy to these two women constantly interchange themselves with the Man who seems to be concerned with some greater obsessive ideal than with who they really are in the flesh. What is brilliant is that both actresses are their own entities and engaging at it. The chemistry they both develop with Mills is equally electric and yet for different purposes and in different ways. Where Fair is light and engaged with the nature loving Man, O’Neill is more goading and sensual in her exchanges with him. The repetitious echoing lines of each other make for some beautifully poignant moments and exchanges. Mills’ reaction to them not following his ‘higher plan’ is understated and really effective, perfectly crafting an unsettling and murky mood. The discovery of what is under the bed and the lie about the red dress in the wardrobe signal a change in both scenarios for the women, adding to the creepy tension and challenging circumstances they find themselves in. Yet the script is by no means all dramatic gloom, there are funny quips made and relaxed moments of togetherness which are needed and played just right. It rightly adds to the impending disaster rather than detracting from it. Nothing is rushed, moments of quiet reflection are embraced and then contrasted with frustrated, tense overlapping conversation. The lingering stare between Fair and Mills from either side of the room as O’Neill walks through the room humming was a hauntingly and striking piece of staging. The split seating always means that our angle on certain moments and expressions is different to the other side yet instead of being an annoyance, it actually successfully adds to the building mystery. The arresting stillness of certain moments draw the audience in and powerfully demonstrates how less is definitely more with this piece. It is a real credit to all three ensemble members to trust the overall pacing and vision of Kachayan who clearly understands that the success of this creative interpretation relies on the well timed assembly of hypnotic tension.
The River is a thoroughly absorbing, mesmerizing piece of theatre. It doesn’t follow a linear structure and the additional twist in the final minutes of the play will leave you puzzled (in a good way) about what and who came first into this fishing tale. Intrigue plays create hard theatre challenges but fortunately Redstitch’s attention to detail, pace and murky ambiance pulls it off remarkably well and will have you thinking about it long after you leave the space.