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A CurtainUp Review
The Night Heron
In the audience at the Royal Court last night were playwrights Conor MacPherson and Frank McGuinness to see The Night Heron, Jez Butterworth's second play following up on his 1995 debut multi-award winning play, Mojo. Butterworth has been writing for the cinema and his latest project is the movie, Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin.
The Night Heron is set in the low lying, fenland area of Cambridgeshire where the only employers are market gardens because the soil is very fertile, or in the nearby university city of Cambridge. Butterworth depicts a close knit community as inbred as the characters in a play by Sam Shepard. I was brought up in Cambridge and I well remember some of the mystery surrounding The Fens, land reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. Earlier in history, it was an area where the Saxons held out against the invading Normans, as only locals knew the paths across the treacherous ground. More recently the place was thick with stories of witchcraft and strange goings on and these idiosyncratic people are the subject of this enigmatic play.
The play has as much murky and quasi-religious depth as the audience may wish to delve into. On one level it is a comedy about the hapless pair of middle aged men who find themselves living together and who have been sacked from their employment as gardeners in Cambridge's Corpus Christi college. On another, it is a peculiar allegorical tale of sin and judgement with Corpus' garden representing the Garden of Eden from which they are excluded after cutting down a quince tree. In either case, there is much to laugh at in Butterworth's witty and plot driven play and plenty to keep your mind whirring long after you leave the Royal Court and step into London's Sloane Square, an area as affluent and urban as the Fens are deprived and rural. Butterworth gives us a sense of texture and atmosphere and unsettles us with doubt, matters left in the dense air.
The bird of the title is a rare visitor that bird watchers have come from all over Europe to see. Jess Wattmore (Karl Johnson) is a member of a religious cult led by the unlikely Dougal (Geoffrey Church). Jess has been sacked from his job as a gardener after an incident with an eight year old boy and is being blackmailed. In the opening scene Jess is about to hang himself when he is interrupted. Jess and Griffin (Ray Winstone) share a cottage in the fens and, in an attempt to pay off the blackmailers, let a room to ex-prisoner Bolla Fogg (Jessica Stevenson). Together they try to win a thousand pound poetry competition with anarchic and tragic consequences.
We expect good performances from Winstone and Johnson which they both deliver. Winstone is the heavy framed, gruff, Fenman, whose burred words we have to listen very carefully for. I would advise non-natives, and even natives, to read the first few scenes of the text, supplied as the programme, because many of us had difficulty with the East Anglian accent for the first half an hour and I wouldn't want you to miss any of the jokes. Johnson is the starey eyed religious fanatic who is recording the Bible stories on a tape from memory to penny whistle accompaniment and never gets out of his pyjamas and dressing gown. His fragility and sense of inevitability are memorable.
Jessica Stevens' "well 'ard", ex-prisoner Bolla is as rough, candid and well intentioned as she is delightful, the big surprise being her familiarity with the poetry of Andrew Marvel. When she changes out of her trousers to appear in fishnets and a very short skirt to go out with Griffin, she keeps the butch, legs apart stance but all this toughness is belied by the obvious care she has taken with her appearance. Her observation about the traffic around the Cambridge colleges, "Bet it's easier to get in to study Greek than it is to get your car in" sums up the tension between "town and gown".
The concept of the gardeners' hierarchy adds interest. Lowest of the low is Dougal, the leafblower. Geoffrey Church is the unlikely cult leader with a bad stammer. Above him in the potting shed order is Royce, a rather stupid special (supernumerary) police constable who operates a strimmer (weed whacker*). Royce, the inept temporary arm of the law is very ably played by Paul Ritter and take note, casting directors, his comic timing is faultless as he goes head to head with policeman hating Bolla.
The set has a nine feet square icon, made up of black and white blown up photo copies of the Last Judgement dominating the far wall of the wooden home, which looks as much garden shed as house. Atmospheric thunderstorms with great cracks of thunder roll around in the vicinity with flashes of strobe lightning. Ian Rickson's direction is always realistic and successful even though some of the people and situations on paper might seem less credible. There is a pure comic mime as Griffin lights and extinguishes a candle several times, each time subverted by the electricity cutting out on him when the candle is out and vice versa. A final scene with a pair of bird watchers which gives a religious connotation to the heron has been cut from the production, presumably by agreement with both author and director. Maybe they felt it was too trite? As it is, the play finishes on a tragic note. There are many unanswered questions but Bolla leaves a tape of her poem "Everything I touch ends up broken, the dolls I had never had any heads." a final chord of pathos. Though I don't think The Night Heron is destined for commercial success I thoroughly enjoyed it. * I enjoy collecting linguistic differences between English and American idiom. Do send me some?
LINK to Curtain Up's review of Jez Butterworth's first play, Mojo in NYC.
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