Broadway Direct’s Mark Shenton speaks to director Ian Rickson and actor Hugh Jackman about their collaboration on The River, Broadway’s most quietly intense and thrilling new play.
There isn’t a Broadway star quite like Hugh Jackman. He may be best known as one of cinema’s foremost all-action, muscular heroes as Wolverine, but on stage (where his acting career began in his native Australia), he makes very interesting, often surprising choices.
This boy from Oz made his Broadway debut in 2003 in the title role of The Boy From Oz, a musical biography of the late Australian singer/songwriter Peter Allen. He has also brought his cabaret concert Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway for a sell-out run in 2011. And he has twice starred in the Broadway premieres of two plays, A Steady Rain in 2009 (opposite Daniel Craig) and now The River by Jez Butterworth, whose last play on Broadway was the Tony-nominated Jerusalem in 2011.
“I’m always looking for new work both as an actor and a theatergoer,” Jackman tells Broadway Direct. “And I’m a massive fan of Jez’s — I’d seen Jerusalem and thought he was an amazing writer, and when I read The River, I found it profoundly affecting. It resonates on many, many levels, and I was immediately drawn to it. It’s a beautiful piece and it’s always exciting to be part of something new. There’s precious little new work on Broadway, and I am loving doing it.”
If there isn’t an actor quite like Jackman, there isn’t a play quite like The River, either — a brooding, quietly intense and thrilling piece that revolves around The Man (played by Jackman) and the women he brings to his rural fishing cabin. It’s a play of mystery and multiple layers, but director Ian Rickson insists it isn’t difficult: “This play is so accessible. It’s about loss, love, presence, and memory, and as I sit in the Circle in Square, I find that audiences are absolutely engrossed by it.”
Jackman confirms it. “There’s a level of quiet in the audience I’ve never experienced before. We go to the theatre to crave that intimate experience in the moment with a story and with a crowd of strangers, and they become very connected to it. There’s a very special feeling in that theatre — it’s very intimate, so it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting.” The audience is wrapped around the onstage cabin on three sides, and no one is more than eight rows away from the stage. “It’s exciting to be part of something really visceral,” Jackman continues.
“The play is part mystery, part love story, and it leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, and I’m still thinking about it — it’s a very deep play, and resonates at whatever level you want to meet it on,” he adds. “It’s very poetic and heightened, but also a very real play — it feels real and naturalistic and grounded, but also mythic.”
A play that is all about presence requires the audience to be present too. And few actors command that sense of attention as Jackman does so seemingly effortlessly. Director Rickson says, “His character is called The Man, so you have to have someone with an iconic, mythic, masculine weight. He has that — he’s pure man — but he also has a poetic sensibility.”
Rickson, who previously directed the play in a short run at London’s tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (a theatre where he was once its artistic director), has worked frequently there with playwright Butterworth, whose first play, Mojo, he directed there, as well as Jerusalem. “We decided that after the Theatre Upstairs it would be exciting for the next iteration of it to be in America, where it is a fresh and a new play. But it needs to have someone with real weight, and we knew that Hugh wanted to do a play.” He feels blessed that Jackman signed up for the job. “I’m in love with him — he’s so radiant and open and thoughtful, but also so hardworking. In the play he has to gut and prepare a fish, and he’d come in every day at 8:30 a.m. to practice it! He’d also take home bulbs of fennel and leeks to practice the cutting of them. I find that really exciting actors, apart from being curious and open, are also the ones who work really hard.”
For Jackman, the preparation he took was a necessity. “My goal is always to make it look natural and easy. The hard thing about acting is that you’re often taking on things you’ve never done before but you have to make it look like you’ve done it all your life — and you need to practice it. You can’t take shortcuts. And that moment of silently preparing a fish is a great moment of joy for him. Now it is for me: It is something I look forward to every night.”
Is he a keen cook himself? “I do OK, but I grew up with both my parents being great cooks, so I was around it a lot. I’d never gutted a fish before, though!” Nor had he fished as a child, so he went fly-fishing with his son in Montana: “It was a research trip, but I didn’t tell him that!”
But now the important thing is to put all that preparation behind him. “Ian is an amazing director who has really prepared us in a beautiful way to make this play feel completely fresh and new every night. Hopefully all of our preparation is hidden, and it is as if it is happening for the first time.”
The rapt attention that the play receives is testament to the fact that audiences believe it is.
Photo: Hugh Jackman. Credit: Richard Termine