This is a very intriguing play.
The Night Heron, by English playwright Jez Butterworth, is now onstage at the Rogue Theatre. The troupe has invested its talents and resources in the strange tale, and its efforts result in an enigmatic but compelling piece of theater.
It's not an easy piece, and it would be a waste of energy to apply endless speculation about the "meaning" of Butterworth's odd story, although it's far from meaningless. The most-captivating aspect of the production is that it is an experience. And it's one that resonates with impressions and questions and feelings—from humor to menace, sympathy to repulsion.
Although Butterworth does indeed create a curious story, sketchy and ambiguous, he revels in his enigmatic characters and their unspoken stories, the subtext which undergirds the words we actually hear. He uses imagery and metaphor to create a literal world and, rather oxymoronically, a spiritual world—or at least mysterious one.
The literal world is a run-down cabin in the fens of Cambridgeshire, abutting a marsh in which it is reported that a night heron has been spotted. This is causing quite a frenzy, because this is not the heron's natural habitat. Visitors, even from other countries, have descended on the small town to try to get a glimpse. There's even a prize being offered for a photo of the wayward bird.
This world is also home to two late-middle-age men, Wattmore (David Greenwood) and Griffin (Joseph McGrath), the nature of whose relationship is never really made clear. We do learn they were both gardeners at Cambridge's Corpus Christi College until an unsavory incident involving a child got Wattmore fired. When Griffin came to his defense, he was fired as well.
We meet Wattmore first, alone in the cabin. He's in his pajamas and robe, apparently having been in a fight—there's a huge bruise on his face, and he's very uncomfortable when he moves about. He is listening to a boombox playing a tape of a voice reading a lengthy passage from the Bible's Book of Genesis: "And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil."
The passage continues with God warning that the fruit of that tree should not be eaten, and should it be eaten, death would be the consequence. Of course, the fruit is eaten, and God expels Adam and Eve from the garden, proclaiming that they will return to the ground in death: "For out of dust wast thou taken; and unto dust shalt thou return."
Wattmore turns the boombox off, replaces the tape and begins speaking, recording a description of the nature and uses of mulch, after which he begins the process of trying to hang himself from the rafters. He hears Griffin returning, reclaims the noose from the rafters, and waits for Griffin to enter.
And away we go. Just to make things a bit more interesting, on the wall of this rundown cabin is a huge reproduction of a Byzantine iconoclast, a painting depicting the Last Judgment.
McGrath as Griffin is the more spirited—and entrepreneurial—of the two, countering the depressed and fearful Wattmore that Greenwood embodies. Both actors portray Butterworth's characters skillfully, resulting in evocative interpretations, which, in spite of their strangeness and the fact that we sometimes simply don't know enough about them, allow us to relate to the characters enough to invest our sympathies with them. They provide compelling performances.
Into the weird world of Griffin and Wattmore comes Bolla, whom Griffin has secured as a boarder, much to Wattmore's dismay, at least initially. She contributes more curious characteristics to the household as she becomes part of their story. Cynthia Meier creates a wonderfully complicated Bolla, who sometimes likes to be called Fiona. She's an ex-convict who was subjected to solitary confinement (what this might be about is not clear) and who is trying "to turn over a new leaf" (perhaps to continue the gardening imagery). Meier's Bolla is a strong, straight-ahead, no-nonsense sort of gal who also can be soft, even vulnerable. She's also intelligent and, quite surprisingly, familiar with poetry of the 17th century. When she recites a section from Andrew Marvell's 1681 poem The Garden, which refers to the paradise from which Adam and Eve were exiled, it's a wonderfully mysterious conclusion to the first act.
The subject of poetry plays a major role in Butterworth's tale. One of Griffin's schemes to ease the financial woes of the household, which include an attempt to extort a substantial sum from Wattmore because of a perceived misdeed, is to write at least 12 lines of poetry to submit to a poetry contest for which first prize is 2,000 pounds. And what is Griffin's idea for a subject for his poem? A garden.
Butterworth's play itself is rather poetic, with intention to evoke rather than to explain. And director Bryan Rafael Falcón gets this, as does his actors. In their hands, the story and its characters are absolutely grounded in a literal way. And thanks to this approach, we can be engaged in an imaginative way.
The Night Heron is a curious piece, and it's in no way a perfect one. We feel like Butterworth plays us a little too gamely at times. But the Rogue gives it a solid and thoughtful workout. It probes and it pokes. It makes us laugh; it disturbs.
It's a very intriguing play.