The Night Heron
by Jez Butterworth
Paragon Theatre Company
Phoenix Theatre, Denver
“’I never saw [the characters on stage] that way, as gangsters. I just saw it as a bunch of children pretending to be something else.’
Would that not pertain as well to Wattmore and Griffin in ‘The Night Heron’?
‘I think so. I don’t know why I write that kind of characters who respond on a very basic level to each other. I don’t mean violent. I guess I mean unsynthesized, and childish.’
’It’s still people talking mysteriously, dangerously — like naughty children pretending to be something they’re not.’”
– Jez Butterworth, interviewed by The Villager, September, 2003
The Night Heron is a play about friendship, survival and the lengths to which people will go to try to do right by each other. It is a play about very, very poor people eking out a living on the fringes of society, in a neglected cabin/shack in the boggy marshlands known as “The Fens” outside of Cambridgeshire, England. The Night Heron is also a play about the dangerous mania that ensues when people in a tight-knit community rally together against what they perceive as evil or wrong. All of these people are trying to be something they are not.
The remoteness of The Fens provides a menacing backdrop—reed beds and marshy suck-pits that threaten to trap the unwary outsider. The setting is rife with symbolism: man constantly struggling to reclaim the land from the sea, the idyllic garden of innocence from which Wattmore and Griffin have been banished, the mob of townsfolk at the end. I love the duality of the play taking place in modern times (Bolla drives a Golf, Griffin does research on the Internet in the mobile library and Wattmore photocopies his Byzantine inconostasis on multiple 8 1⁄2” x 11” sheets of paper to pin up on the wall) but with a sense of old-timey desperation as the guys have to go out into the woods to poop, the wind howls through the broken glass and chinks in walls of their cabin and they are reduced to trapping rabbits to eat.
The first thing that struck me about the main characters in The Night Heron was their fierce loyalty. Griffin and Wattmore are powerfully loyal friends, in spite and because of their hardships. Bolla, too, when she enters the picture, latches on to her new “roomies” with a strong loyalty which drives her to great lengths to try and please her new friends, whom she determines through their conversations to be kindred in their shared status as “have-nots.”
The notion of the “haves” versus “have-nots” also informs every conflict in the play. Being poor and unemployed at a time of crisis, when Wattmore is accused of molesting a child and is being blackmailed, leaves these two friends with very few choices. What makes the play exciting is the sheer creativity the characters employ in trying to claw their way out of their predicament. The fact that Griffin chooses to take on Wattmore’s predicament as something he is responsible for helping solve is one of the intriguing and touching mysteries of the play.
This is a hilarious, darkly comedic tragedy. As with any good tragedy, there is tremendous opportunity for the protagonists to succeed, if only they could persevere, vanquish their foes, come clean or right the wrong. We need to believe up until the very end that these guys might succeed, that inspiration for that winning poem might come, that Griffin might get the money, that the good Bolla might prevail and Jess might get his garden back.
“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.”
– Lizzie Loveridge, CurtainUp review of The Night Heron
“Going to Cambridge is how Butterworth knows the landscape in which “The Night Heron” takes place: the fens of Cambridgeshire. ‘Reclaimed marshes, extremely flat and barren.’”
– Jerry Tallmer, The Villager, September, 2003
Stylistically, we have to present this story as very realistic. The audience should feel the damp of the marshy surroundings, almost smell the rich peat soil and see it underneath the gardeners’ fingernails. Their cabin should feel small and ancient—weathered wood gathered a long time ago (from a ship run aground???), dark, with patches and home-made fix-its from over the years. Shoddy though it is, the cabin should have an odd, pathetic coziness about it. Gardening tools and trappings mixed with practical things for the home—tools for the woodstove, cushions. Almost like the gardening shed and the home are one in the same. Found objects that the guys would have scavenged from where they work are key.
Lighting could make or break this show in terms of whether we can establish the right mood of humor, suspense, hope and doubt lurking in the shadows. The glow of the fire will be very important, as will a sense of where light does enter into this damp little cabin. This story feels very saturated, very dark, with very sculpting light to me. The murkier the mood, the better. We will definitely need a very different, angelic light on the boy at the end.
We should hear the wind threatening to blow the house down. Rain, thunder and the bird screams that scare the shit out of us are essential. It would be great if the sound design helps us feel as though nature is hungry and right at the door, threatening to swallow up the entire cabin with everyone inside it and sweep it back out to sea. We will need specific bird sounds—the gull and the tern and of course, the night heron. The very home-made recorded voices of Wattmore and Bolla on the boom box will be integral, of course.
The guys should have the clothes on their backs and just the few other items mentioned in the script (pjs for Wattmore, coat, ski mask, etc. for Griffin when he is out). Their dress is totally utilitarian and rough, emphasizing their status (or lack thereof). Bolla needs to have a strong duality of a tough, denying-her-femininity attitude mixed with a desperate desire to be accepted as a woman when she dresses up to go out. That should be comical not because we try to make her look comical, but because she is trying so hard to dress up that she way overcompensates. In all characters, their dress should tell us very clearly of the hierarchy among these people in the story.
Director Wendy Franz orchestrates a rich palette of silence and storytelling, foreboding lighting and sound effects, consistent dialect work, and as genuine a rustic setting as you’ll ever see.
The Night Heron is firmly grounded in character and place…The performances are thick with meaning and conviction.
Paragon continues to prove itself as a theater company to watch – not in the future, but now. Franz has built a unified production with impressive acting, particularly from company founders Michael Stricker as Griffin and Warren Sherrill as Wattmore.
One goes with relish and high expectations to the productions unleashed by Paragon Theatre Company. This company is composed of actors, techies and directors of such an understanding of the craft as to make its audience stretch and grow…Kudos must fly first to director Wendy Franz who has assembled this magnificent cast and technical staff, and then elicited stunning performances from actor and technical crew alike.
Best Supporting Actress, Drama, Denver Post Ovation Awards: Mare Trevathan
Best Year By A Company, Denver Post Ovation Awards: Paragon Theatre’s 2007 Season
Best Actor, Drama, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Michael Stricker
Best Supporting Actress, Drama, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Mare Trevathan
Best Supporting Actor, Drama, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Jarrad Holbrook
Spotlight on Drama Productions, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: The Night Heron
Spotlight on Directors of Drama, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Wendy Franz
Spotlight on Lighting Designs, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Jacob Welch
Spotlight on Sound Designs, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Brian Freeland
Spotlight on Costume Designs, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Brynn Star Coplan
Spotlight on Supporting Actors in a Drama, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Michael Stricker
Spotlight on Supporting Actresses in a Drama, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Mare Trevathan