A darkly comic play about a group of outcasts gathered in the Cambridgeshire fens, The Night Heron was Jez Butterworth's first play to be staged after his debut, Mojo (Royal Court, 1995). Premiered at the Royal Court on 11 April 2002, it is shot through with eccentric black humour, symbolism, religious fanaticism and evocative natural imagery.
Sacked from their jobs as gardeners at a Cambridge college, Wattmore and Griffin are holed up in their isolated cabin in the marshes. Wattmore is a suicidal religious fanatic while Griffin is a more down-to-earth criminal type; bound together by mutual need and exasperation, they behave like an old married couple. To make money, they rent a room to Bolla, a female ex-con. Then it turns out that Wattmore is being blackmailed for a paedophile act, and that he believes Bolla is a witch. Griffin tries to raise money to pay off the blackmail by mugging people in the marshes, while Bolla aims to help her hosts win a poetry competition by kidnapping a Cambridge student. Finally, a local religious sect, led by Dougal, arrives and attempts to discover if Wattmore and Bolla are embodiments of evil. Hovering over the action is the visit of a night heron, a rare bird which attracts attention to the area.
The Royal Court premiere was directed, like Mojo before it, by Ian Rickson, who by 2002 was the Royal Court's artistic director. It was designed by Ultz, and starred Karl Johnson as Wattmore, Ray Winstone as Griffin and Jessica Stevenson as Bolla.