A head shot of Hugh Jackman
A head shot of Hugh Jackman

A Theatrical Partnership 10 Years Strong

In the theater, as so often in life, it is the deep and enduring partnerships that add both resonance and texture to the productions — and bring out the best in the partners.

Such is the case with playwright Jez Butterworth and director Ian Rickson, who have worked together ever since Butterworth, then 24, and Rickson, then 31, collaborated on the playwright’s London debut in 1994.

That play was Mojo, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre; last year, Butterworth and Rickson teamed up to revive it in the West End, and Rickson told one interviewer, “It feels a bit like I’m working with Jez on remastering his first album. How lucky am I?”

It was a play that Rickson had championed when he was part of the directorial team at the Royal Court, then run by Stephen Daldry (before Rickson himself would take over). The theatre was looking for a summer hit when the script arrived, and Rickson told another interviewer, “I brought Jez in, we had a read-through with six actors, and we knew straight away we were on to a winner. The dogma of the time dictated that new playwrights went in the theatre upstairs, but Mojo felt constrained there. So Stephen did the bold thing: debut, main stage, bang!”

It was on that same main stage that Rickson would go on to direct the premieres of Butterworth’s The Winterling, The Night Heron, and Jerusalem, while Parlour Song was premiered at London’ Almeida Theatre. But after the triumphant West End and subsequent Broadway success of Jerusalem, the playwright knew he had to write on a smaller scale, which is how The River came to be premiered at the Royal Court’s tiny, 90-seat Theatre Upstairs instead. He told The Times at the time: “I got offered almost every West End theatre. I could have put it on anywhere, but I couldn’t write it. I got halfway through and I couldn’t get any further. But when I went and saw the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs I knew that’s where it wanted to be. It exists because it wanted to go on there.”

And that is where it received glowing notices from the London critics. Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote, “The River is like a subtly crafted piece of chamber music. It is teasing, haunting, and hushed, with just three speaking roles for unnamed characters.” He also admitted, “It is also damnably difficult to write about as there is a mystery at its heart that I must not reveal.”

Set in a wooden cabin beside a river in the English countryside, it revolves around a man with a passion for fishing — and two women who visit him, separately, there. Cush Jumbo, who is playing one of those women, told Broadway Direct, “Reading Jez’s plays, like Jerusalem, you get the sense of the possibility of magic as it is connected to the cycle of life. With The River, you realize very quickly it isn’t a play about fishing, but it is put in a framework of a play about fishing. It’s a kind of a dream, and I loved that idea.”

For Butterworth, there’s another dream, like that of all playwrights: to see his plays live. When Mojo was revived last year, he told The Daily Telegraph, “It is a piece of work of which I am really proud. If it were some other art form — painting or music or film — we wouldn’t have to do this. But because theater’s first and best trick is that it’s live, if plays are going to live then they need to be done again. So we might as well have a go at it every couple of decades.” And now Rickson and Butterworth are about to have another go at The River.

This brilliant theatrical partnership has been equaled in the theater only by the relationships that Peter Hall once had with the late Harold Pinter; Michael Blakemore has with Michael Frayn; and Peter Wood and Trevor Nunn have had with Tom Stoppard. According to Sonia Friedman, the West End and Broadway producer who produced the transfers of Jerusalem and is now bringing The River to Broadway, “Every writer wants to find a kindred spirit, a director who understands what they are trying to say. Jez and Ian are lucky. They are on the same wavelength. There is a mutual trust and appreciation that brings out the best in both. It’s rare, but great when it happens.”

Rickson himself tells Broadway Direct, “It’s hard to put into words how exactly Jez and I work together. He definitely writes them and I direct them. I know that much. And there’s a deep loyalty and a love of collaboration, which helps us both. Jez will show me something quite early, and I will seek to be as supportive and enabling as possible to help it come through. We talk, imagine, and visualize the rough magic of a live stage. We share references, which might be poetry, folk myths, or come from psychoanalysis, each knowing that Jez will be like a medium channeling something from the deep. In the writing process and in the rehearsal room I can never really remember whose idea was what, although Jez is definitely the primary artist, and I’m the interpretative one. I’m blessed.”

So are theatergoers — on both sides of the Atlantic.