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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Jerusalem
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2009; Apollo Theatre Spring 2010

In the opening seconds of Jez Butterworth's new play a girl sweetly singing Blake's 'Jerusalem' is drowned out by the loud music of a drunken rave, and therein lies a metaphor for the whole play. Butterworth is writing about Englishness, countryside, eccentricity and individual liberty, and finding that all, for all their attractiveness, are empty anachronisms.

And he is frequently very, very funny about it.

At the centre of his play is Johnny 'Rooster' Byron - wastrel, boozer, drug dealer to the local teenagers and father figure to a collection of the 'unwashed, unstable and unhinged.' He lives in a derelict caravan at the edge of an archetypal English village, and the local council have been trying for years to remove both him and the caravan as eyesores and general nuisances.

Johnny is no coward - far from it - but except for that, a parallel to Shakespeare's Falstaff is apt, because while we are eventually going to discover how much of an empty shell he is, there is a lot that is attractive about him and a lot of fun to be had in his company.

Although physically not a large man, at least not in the person of actor Mark Rylance, Johnny is the sort who fills a room (or the great outdoors) all by himself. Loud, swaggering, confident, vulgar and charismatic, he's at his absolute best when telling elaborate and eloquent tall tales - of his miraculous birth, of meeting a 90 foot giant, of being kidnapped by Nigerian traffic wardens - so rich in their detail that everyone onstage and everyone in the audience wants to believe they're true. (The tale of the giant leads the hearers to a very funny digression on how and why BBC News missed the story.)

But the Council officers are out there, ready to bulldoze Johnny's home, he's getting a little too old for fecklessness to be attractive, and his troupe of merry men are moving away, growing up, or beginning to laugh at him behind his back.

In a way, the play's vision is a kind of inverse Chekhov - rather than a lovely but enervated aristocracy giving way to a crude future, Butterworth sees all that is coarse, messy and alive about England being brushed aside, paved over or homogenised.

It is not accidental that the play is set on St. George's Day and the occasion of the village fete, since we are reminded that even that bit of Olde England has been domesticated into facelessness, even within the memory of the youngest characters. Where once there were motorcycle daredevils and kick-the-strong-man-in-the-bollocks booths, now there are just kiddy rides, Coca-Cola and corporate-sponsored Morris dancing.

And so Butterworth lets us celebrate and regret the passing of the old blowhard and all he represents, even as we recognise how impotent and irrelevant he has become. And as I said, there is a lot of fun along the way .

Not least of the pleasures is watching a bravura performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny.

Rylance has frequently disappointed me as a performer in the past, though he seemed to have found his feet again recently playing a string of wimpy characters with great comic skill. Johnny is certainly the butchest character he's played in a while, and he carries it off brilliantly, dominating the stage with a rarely-broken imperturbability, a mischievous smile, a golden tongue and a swagger that reminds you of Popeye the Sailor Man.

Mackenzie Crook, Alan David, Tom Brooke and Gerard Horan add to the fun as eccentrics and misfits of various stripes. Ian Rickson directs with exactly the right balance of the elegiac and celebratory.

The play does run out of steam before it finishes, and Butterworth has to manipulate a few too many character and plot twists to find his way toward an ending. At more than three hours in length, it could only have been helped by some judicious cutting.

But so much of it is so enjoyable that you can't really begrudge a few extra minutes spent under its spell.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Jerusalem - Royal Court 2009