On St George's Day, the morning of the local county fair, Johnny Byron, local waster and modern...… Read more
A comic, contemporary vision of rural life in our green and pleasant land, Jez Butterworth’s epic new play is wildly original. In part a lament about the erosion of country life, and in part a rebuff to the antiseptic modern world, it features a landmark central performance from Mark Rylance as hellraiser Johnny Byron, ‘a performance so charismatic, so mercurial, so complete and compelling that it doesn’t look like acting’ (ES), and a superb ensemble cast including Mackenzie Crook who ‘excels’ as Johnny’s sidekick Ginger.
On St George’s Day, the morning of the local county fair, Johnny Byron is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his son wants his dad to take him to the fair, and a motley crew of mates want his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.
Jerusalem is not about the green and pleasant land of lazyminded, armchair nationalists. It is flavoured instead by West Country madness and has, at its very core, a performance of rare virtuosity by Mark Rylance.
— Quentin Letts, Daily Mail, 17 July 2009.
Mondays-Saturdays at 7.30pm
Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2pm (previously advertised as 2.30pm)
Produced in the West End by Sonia Friedman Productions, Royal Court Theatre Productions and Old Vic Productions, in association with Lee Menzies.
4 stars The Daily Telegraph, By Charles Spencer, 16 July 2009
Over the years the Royal Court has often concentrated on desperate lives in gritty urban environments, offering plays packed with fear, loathing, sex, violence and degradation.
So Jez Butterworth’s new drama initially seems like a welcome blast of bracing fresh air. It’s St Georges Day, the action is set in an ancient wood in deepest Wiltshire, birds are chirping, and a girl dressed as a fairy sings Jerusalem.
A green and pleasant land at the Royal Court? You must be joking.
In a play blessed with what I suspect will prove an award-winning performance by the great Mark Rylance, the dramatist shows that matters can turn every bit as nasty in the countryside.
But though there are several of the Royal Court’s trademark “in your face” shock tactics and an exceptionally high swear word count even by the exacting standards of the address, this rich three-hour play is also tender, touching, and blessed with both a ribald humour and a haunting sense of the mystery of things.
The moods keep shifting, and right to the end you are never quite sure whether you are watching a rambunctious comedy or a terrible tragedy in the making.
Rylance plays Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a Romany ne’er-do-well who for years has lived in a mobile home in the wood.
Once, he was a motorcycle stunt rider; now, he has become a tattooed Pied Piper, attracting local children who come to him to score drugs, drink and dance at wild parties.
But the local authority is threatening him with eviction, and a local girl has gone missing. Is Rooster a basically benevolent old rogue, as he appears, or something far more sinister?
Butterworth and Rylance keep us guessing to the end. For much of the evening Rylance is wonderfully funny, never more so than when, heavily hung-over, he prepares a breakfast of stale milk, a raw egg, several shots of vodka and a wrap of speed and somehow gets it down in one.
And his relations with the locals most notably Mackenzie Crook as a sad and creepy hanger-on; Tom Brooke as a delightfully gormless child heading for Australia; and Alan David as an elderly local eccentric are full of laugh-out-loud humour.
But the effortlessly charismatic Rylance also has scenes when he tells magical stories and seems endowed with mystic powers, others when he appears suddenly menacing.
And in scenes with his six-year-old son, he conjures a mixture of tenderness and terrible loneliness that is almost too painful to watch.
The carping might complain that this is a baggy, untidy play. I’d say that it is rich, strange and continuously gripping, and Ian Rickson’s beautifully acted production, with a superb woodland design by Ultz, is one of the must-see events of the summer.4 stars The Times, By Benedict Nightingale, 16 July 2009
In his recent Parlour Song, Jez Butterworth defined suburbia as a mix of the boring, the inane and the quietly desperate. Now he turns his attention to the countryside and isn’t more comforting. From the start, in which a fairy appears beneath a tacky English flag to recite Blake’s Jerusalem, you know that he’s worried about what the bureaucrats, the lookalike housing estates and, not least, the confused and alienated country people themselves are doing to our pleasant pastures and mountains green.
His Jerusalem is a bold, ebullient and often hilarious State-of-England or (almost) State-of-Olde-England play. At the stage’s centre is an American-style trailer, surrounded by discarded furniture and trees, and at the evenings centre is its inhabitant. Mark Rylance’s Rooster Byron is an anarchic maverick, a Wiltshire lord of misrule, mythologised by his shambolic retinue of underage girls and male layabouts, among them Mackenzie Crook as a forlorn, gangling loser called Ginger. No, Rooster didn’t manage to jump Stonehenge on a motorbike, but he tells a tall story, fights a wild fight, and has stuck up two fingers at authority for aeons.
But authority is fighting back. In so far as there’s a plot in a play that’s probably too long yet never dull, it involves the impending bulldozing of Rooster’s illegal home and the banishing of those who depend on him for drugs, fun and the pounding orgy or throbbing rave that opens Ian Rickson’s energy-packed production. The angry father who brings thugs to beat and brand him can’t evict him, but the local council can and will. Mustn’t reveal too much, but can’t resist reporting that he curses a curse that magnificently draws on his Byron ancestors and the gods and giants of legend.
Clearly Byron is making a last stand for the vanishing world represented by his druidical copse and the ley line supposedly running beneath it. We’re also to compare this with the spurious St George’s Day fete in the village offstage: brewery-sponsored morris dancing, “meditation cave”, dancing dog display. Yet Butterworth, if nostalgic for the old and angered by the new, doesn’t sentimentalise his characters.
Indeed, you almost expect Jerry Springer to emerge from the woods and interview the bucolic underclass wanly on show. Rylance begins by scrambling some of his words, yet that emphasises Roosters quick wit. Here’s a shrewd, bold, defiant, charismatic, even mesmeric man born out of his time. Imagine King Arthur reincarnated as a troll and you have something of the quality he brings to the debased pastoral he grittily, comically and finally mournfully inhabits.4 stars The Guardian, By Michael Billington, 17 July 2009
Jez Butterworth’s last play, Parlour Song, transported us to a housing estate on the edge of a dark forest. Now he takes us into the woods for a bucolic frolic depicting the disappearance of a pagan, primitive culture. Even if there is a touch of romantic nostalgia to Butterworth’s portrait of deep England, his play justifies its three-hours-plus length and contains a star role momentously played by Mark Rylance.
Butterworth’s dominant character is Johnny “Rooster” Byron: a mixture of Pied Piper, Romany roustabout and Wiltshire Falstaff. A former daredevil, he now lives in a woody trailer from which he dispenses booze, drugs and fantastic fables to a gang of admiring onlookers. But on the day of the local fair, which also happens to be St George’s Day, he faces eviction for unauthorised encampment. With a new estate about to be built in the area, there is no room for a charismatic anarchist, disturber of the peace and wild man of the woods like Johnny Byron.
He is such a rich creation that you feel that the author himself has been seduced by him. Defending the fact that 15-year-old kids attend his druggy rave-ups, Johnny declares “half of them are safer here than they are at home”. Since the only representatives of supposed normality we see are an abusive stepfather, a morris-dancing publican and a pair of council officials, the dice are heavily loaded in Johnny’s favour. Where the play works best is in its reminder that magnetic spellbinders like Johnny are often profound solitaries who depend on an unreliable audience. One of the hero’s tallest tales, about meeting an itinerant giant on the A14, is hilariously undermined by a sidekick who wants to know how the story was missed by BBC Points West. And, towards the end, we realise that Johnny’s parasitic acolytes are capable of the deepest betrayal.
The brilliance of Rylance’s performance lies in the contrast between the public and private man. Surrounded by his disciples, Rylance epitomises the glamorous, yarn-spinning outlaw. But there is a telltale moment in Ian Rickson’s perfectly judged production when Rylance is left alone and reaches for a discreetly hidden pair of specs to read the eviction order. Later, in a scene with the mother of his child, Rylance also implies that he knows the game is up and there is no more room for him in today’s world than there was for Jack Falstaff in Henry V’s ascetic realm.
Mackenzie Crook, Tom Brooke and Danny Kirrane are all impressive in supporting roles, but the triumph belongs to Rylance for perfectly embodying Butterworth’s vision of a vanished demonic magic.5 stars Daily Mail, By Quentin Letts, 17 July 2009
An awful lot of scrumpy must have gone into Jez Butterworth’s astonishing new play – an invigorating, yelping, defiant portrait of 21st century shires England.
Jerusalem is not about the green and pleasant land of lazyminded, armchair nationalists. It is flavoured instead by West Country madness and has, at its very core, a performance of rare virtuosity by Mark Rylance.
He plays a gipsy drug dealer, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, who has long inhabited a woodland somewhere in Wiltshire. Year after year he introduces the local youths to his heady stories and mind-altering substances.
Each year they grow up and move on. Byron, sitting outside his caravan, is a cross between the pied piper and Puff The Magic Dragon.
One St George’s Day, liaison officers from the local council arrive to serve Byron with eviction orders. This threat seems to send him only deeper into a haze of vodka and fantasy. There is strong language. Lots of it. But there is also inventive, angry, West Country language about freedom.
This often extremely funny show is a furious blast at the urban homogenisers who want us all to live in a concreted realm under streetlights and closed circuit cameras.
All those Islingtonians who go to Glastonbury every year should listen!
Byron preens, staggers, flirts and gulps a flip cocktail down in one. His eyes flash as he pushes himself further into myth. He joshes his young friends and leads them astray – probably for their own good, for they learn about life from this Robin Hood.
It is the day of the village fair. There is wild garlic on the breeze. Someone brings Byron a present of a goldfish in a plastic bag. What a symbol of constrained liberty that goldfish is! I was half expecting him to drink it.
With its morris dancing and its forecast of a Stonehenge building giant who might come to Byron’s rescue, in this play Butterworth catches the cadences and tiny details of West Country wild boys.
Mackenzie Crook is excellent as Byron’s sidekick Ginger and there is good support from a cast which includes Alan David, Tom Brooke and Gerard Horan. Fantastic, shocking and fresh.4 stars Financial Times, By Sarah Hemming, 17 July 2009
It is St George’s Day in rural Wiltshire and the day has dawned fair. In the village the bunting is out, the floats gather for the fete and the air jingles faintly with morris dancers’ bells. But all is not well. The fete queen has disappeared; the local youth are drunk, stoned, hung-over or all three; and there is a brutal showdown brewing between the council and the local ne’er-do-well, a charming scoundrel called Rooster Byron who camps on the edge of town in a state of permanent disorder.
Jez Butterworth’s new play is a wonderful, rollicking, dark comedy about contemporary life in rural England. Where his recent Parlour Song was a tight three-hander, set indoors on a suburban estate, Jerusalem takes place entirely outdoors, beyond the edges of the new-build sprawl, and is big, brassy and boisterous. It is three acts and three hours long, features a large cast and sundry (live) wildlife and is generous in every department (including in the number of words, of which there are rather too many). The play meanders like a rambling rose and the plot sometimes disappears from view completely, but, like Parlour Song, it is also very funny and demonstrates deep consternation about the limits to the way we live.
Here the young, boxed in and bored, dream of escape to Australia or work in dead-end jobs and get smashed at the weekend. Butterworth is scathing about this soul-destroying prospect, as he is about the creeping uniformity that covers the country in identikit retail outlets, produces stifling health and safety regulations and forces undesirables such as Rooster Byron off the land.
But he is not dewy-eyed either about the rebellious opposition. The centre of the play is Rooster, a sort of Lord of Misrule who holds court outside his ramshackle mobile home, surrounded by junk and drugs. Mark Rylance, in a superb performance, makes this character dangerously charismatic, all swagger and stories and seductive charm. He stands up to drab authority and he does provide a haven of sorts for the local waifs and strays. But he is also a fantasist, an unscrupulous drug-dealer and a belligerent drunk, who starts his day with a cocktail of milk, raw egg, vodka and speed.
Somewhere, Butterworth suggests, something has gone deeply awry in the heart of England. He laces the play with teasing references to English lore: to King Arthur, to King Lear, to folk songs, Druid beliefs and tales of giants. But he does so mischievously, suggesting that nostalgia is not the answer either. This is an exuberant, ambitious play and the cast, directed superbly by Ian Rickson, is hard to fault. Mackenzie Crook and Tom Brooke, as two of Roosters acolytes, are outstanding, and the whole play is carried along by Rylances excellent, enigmatic Rooster.4 stars Daily Express, By Paul Callan, July 17 2009
Despite the laughter that rocked the old Royal Court, playwright Jez Butterworth is making a deeply serious point. It concerns the destruction of our Green And Pleasant Land (hence Jerusalem) by avaricious developers with their identical housing estates, the Tesco-isation of what were once fields and the slow erosion of country life.
Defying this changing world in his battered American Airstream caravan is Johnny “Rooster” Byron – an anarchic gypsy outsider, drug dealer, teller of outrageous tales (he claims to have met a 45ft giant) and lover of many women.
But after years of middle-fingered defiance, authority is closing in on his woodland corner of England (in this case Wiltshire). They come in the form of by-law spouting officials from the council – Sarah Moyle’s vicious Ms Fawcett is chillingly spot on – intent on evicting him.
Mark Rylance, a real-life eccentric, relishes the role of Rooster and the character takes on hilarious proportions when he is visited by a rabble of locals.
These include a couple of slapper girls, a pitiful would-be DJ called Ginger (Mackenzie Crook is touchingly sad as this gangling failure), a dippy professor, a mindless abattoir worker (“I stand there and I slay 200 cows. Wham.”) and confused Lee (Tom Brooke makes the gormless gaze a fine art). It is the village’s St George’s Day fete and they all swirl around Rooster in a haze of booze and spliffs, entranced by his outrageous stories. Mark Rylance brings a range of emotions to the part from his cocky tale-telling to despair at the inevitability of his eviction.
This play is not for the feeble-hearted. It contains Rooster’s harrowing beating-up and branding by an angry fathers hired thugs and the dialogue is liberally laced with profanity. But the humour shines brightly through – and with it Rylance’s fine comic timing.
Gerard Horan is memorable as publican Wesley (embarrassingly dressed as a Morris dancer for a brewery promotion). Three hours might seem long for a play but the action never flags, flipping between comedy and tragedy, pathos and tenderness and keeping us guessing till the very last moments.
The Observer, By Susannah Clapp, 19 July 2009
About half a mile down from the Little Chef on the A14, a giant chats about building Stonehenge. In a Wiltshire glade at dawn, teenage girls tumble bug-eyed and doped-up from the depths of a wrecked sofa. Thugs barge into a mobile home with branding iron and blowtorch. A professor warbles about dragons and the arc of the firmament; a publican rails against his daily wrestle with “crap kiddies’ options, fiddly bloody sachets, broken bloody towel dispensers”. In the distance is the hubbub of the annual Flintock fair, where the new May Queen is about to be crowned.
Jez Butterworth’s gorgeous, expansive new play keeps coming at its audience in unpredictable gusts, rolling from comic to furious, from winsome to bawdy. It’s a lament for England and specifically England, not Britain: “I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop,” explains Danny Kirrane’s utterly persuasive abattoir worker, stolid in shorts, lion-painted face and heart-shaped shades. Yet it has no taint of nostalgia; at least one of the fair’s morris dancers is bogus. The new estate, with its vindictive petitions, is definitely an enemy to the green and pleasant land, but the world that it sets out to banish is itself dangerous, sometimes malevolent, as well as marvellous.
At the centre of Jerusalem is a wild man of the woods. Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a long-time mobile-home dweller, whose encampment, and existence, are under threat from the local townspeople and the police, and perhaps from his own enthralled but treacherous raggle-taggle retinue. Rooster is a drug-dealer, an old biker, a dispenser of alcohol to the under-age, a shielder of youth from more ferocious predators, a fabulist, a lord of misrule and a summoner of spirits. Butterworth puts into his mouth gilded phrases and foul oaths, incantations and elaborate, detail-stuffed stories. He tells of golden stags and babies born with teeth and chest hair. He boasts about being kidnapped by traffic wardens.
Mark Rylance doesn’t so much act the Rooster as embody him. In a further proof of his chameleon powers, he seems to have changed shape, to have thickened and grown in bulk. The mercurial performer who seemed typecast as Ariel and who shimmered as Olivia in Twelfth Night here looks as if he’s built like a tank. In combats, and hats that range from pointed steel helmet to leather ear-flapper, he has an urban swagger and tattooed biceps. He opens the evening by handstanding his way into a waterbutt: that’s before he downs a half-pint of vodka laced with speed. He has dropped his voice a tone, thickened its timbre and slowed his delivery to traditional West Country pace: the effect is of a new bodily as well as vocal heaviness. Yet when he tells a story, he has the eerie but intimate touch of an enchanter; someone who sees everyone but seems to be looking only at you.
For his 10 years as artistic director of the Globe, Rylance did not appear in new work on the stage. The Globe, which he launched and made into an outstandingly popular, revealing place, was a wonderful creation which became his finely wrought cage. During his time there, he always resisted being singled out, and insisted on the importance of ensemble. Well, Rylance is definitely the central force in Jerusalem, but he’s not the only actor worth watching. Alan David is comically vague as the professor, and Tom Brooke comically blank as the boy who may be the one who gets away. And Mackenzie Crook, lean and loping, out-of-his-head but on everyone’s case, looks effortlessly interesting as the hanger-on who kids himself, but sees through some of his leader’s guff.
Ian Rickson is Butterworth’s director of choice. He’s meticulous but he’s also strategic: he keeps the peculiar switchback of the action continuously on the move and unnerving. A few trims and tucks would render it sleeker but part of Butterworth’s point is to make the plot as extravagant as his language: Rickson brings that out. This is one of those enduring theatrical partnerships which, far from imposing homogeneity on a playwright’s work, emphasises its variety. Butterworth, after all, first came to fame, at the Royal Court in 1995, with Mojo, a totally Soho play directed by Rickson, and also designed by Ultz. Earlier this year, his Rickson-directed Parlour Song took the opposite vantage-point from Jerusalem: the action was seen through the eyes of the inhabitants of a new-build estate.
The countryside, not much present on the stage for years, has been gradually creeping onto the boards. In the last few years, we’ve had Peter Gill’s The York Realist, Nell Leyshon’s Comfort Me With Apples and Richard Bean’s Harvest. In 2002, Butterworth himself, at first considered a particularly urban writer, wrote a Fenland play, The Night Heron.
Jerusalem adds another layer to the new ruralism. Among its waves of fancy are some hyper-real exhibits from the countryside. Ultz’s grand design frames the stage with genuine wind-tossed elms: environmentalists have been reassured that, displaying signs of disease, they’d been marked down for felling; their stage appearance gives them an afterlife. Underneath the leafy arches appear live hens, a peeing tortoise, a goldfish who is held hostage. At times you can actually smell the action on stage: there are whiffs of petrol and of burning. At others, the scents are an illusion, like one of the Rooster’s magical tales: the life is conjured so vividly that wafts of wild garlic and weed seem to bowl across the stalls.
The Independent On Sunday, By Kate Bassett, 19 July 2009
The Theatre Downstairs has turned into a wooded dell. Leafy trees arc over the stage and a girl in a satin slip stands by a recently axed trunk, quietly singing William Blake’s “Jerusalem”, as if it’s a mournful folksong: “And did those feet in ancient time …”.
Throbbing rock music drowns her out, blasting from a ramshackle silver caravan. A modern-day bacchanal is suddenly in full swing: a mle of hooded youths dance around like raving lunatics.
Just as abruptly, it’s the morning after and everyone has vanished, except a pair of po-faced County Court officials, clutching clipboards. They stare at the festive wreckage and slap an eviction order on the door.
Time is running out for Mark Rylance’s Johnny in Jez Butterworth’s new, weird and rather wonderful, disaffected English pastoral, Jerusalem, directed by Ian Rickson. Johnny is an ageing, drug-dealing “gypo” who used to be a daredevil biker and hero at the local fairs. He has lived in this wood for years, but he’s now becoming a bte noir: an annoyance to a neighbouring new estate when he goes on his wild benders. He might even be seriously dangerous.
Primarily, Jerusalem is a very funny comedy about rustic wasters. Rylance lurches out of his caravan like an addled clown or a tattooed, hung-over hobgoblin his pelvis still gyrating, spliffs sprouting from his boots. With a touch of the warlock, the Pied Piper and Peer Gynt, he draws idling lads, young lasses and nutters to his den. He sells them whizz and spins delirious impish yarns about how he was born in a black cape, with a bullet between his teeth, or how he once chatted with a passing giant, just off the A14.
Rylance’s comic timing is a delight. He just steers clear of milking his gags as he oscillates between macho swagger and nervy mumbling. Mackenzie Crook flails amusingly as well, as his spindly sidekick, Ginger, alongside Alan David as a batty old professor, and Tom Brooke who plays a sweetly gormless teen. Rylance also has startling tenderness, and volcanic rage at the law-enforcing Goliaths who threaten to raze his home.
Butterworth’s script is rambling at points, and the cast’s West Country accents could be pinned down better. But the surreal digressions and the moments of cursing black magic tapping into age-old superstitions are terrifically bold. The way treachery and sinister brutality lurk in the shadows is gripping too. The adolescent girl we glimpsed singing at the start has, we glean, been missing for a week, and her abusive step-dad wants retribution, or a scapegoat.
If Jerusalem is a darkening contemporary vision of England’s green and pleasant land, The Apple Cart is a period piece/prophecy about our nation. That is to say, George Bernard Shaw wrote this rarely revived political satire in 1928, but set it “in the future”.
The programme notes accompanying Peter Hall’s production in his Bath summer rep season proclaim that line after line might have been written yesterday. Truth be told, though, this piece isn’t astoundingly topical, and Hall’s staging doesn’t attempt to look up-to-the-minute.
As Shaw’s fictional British PM gathers with his ministers at King Magnus’s palace, His Majesty’s private secretaries are perched at their desks with Bakelite phones. Barry Stanton’s Boanerges, a union leader and new cabinet member, strides in dressed like a Russian revolutionary. Then, in a tweedy three-piece suit, the Prime Minister (James Laurenson) brandishes an ultimatum for the King to sign, insisting the monarch give up his political powers of veto.
Shaw was sharply prescient in some respects. He sardonically anticipated, here, the reduction of Britain to America’s lapdog, and the rise of huge corporations, slipping politicians into their gold-lined pockets. But, in truth, the main reverberations are with the distant past, with the constitutional crisis looking like a variation on the Magna Carta, and with Magnus directly echoing Shakespeare’s history plays.
The Apple Cart is a minor curio, yet it’s enjoyable to see it given this airing by a perky ensemble. Charles Edwards’s debonair Magnus is an entertainingly canny royal, keeping Janie Dee as his slinky mistress on the side.
For Bassline, the focus narrows from big political debates about this sceptre’d isle, zooming in on east London today indeed, more precisely, on the inner-city neighbourhood immediately surrounding the Barbican Centre. Graeme Miller’s promenade piece (for BITE:09) is a multimedia installation rather than theatre, strictly speaking. But wend your way down into the subterranean bowels of Car Park No 5 and you find yourself in a strangely haunted kind of art gallery, accompanied by a stately Purcell-inspired ground bass, somewhere in the distance. A line of translucent banners stretches away into the darkness, shimmering with monochrome photographs of the nearby streets and estates. Victorian alleys and faceless tower blocks are endowed with a silvery, melancholy beauty as you wander though this ethereal world, chasing time-lapse images of strangers vanishing round corners.
The snippets of local people’s voices recording their impressions of the area may seem frustratingly fragmentary. Go with the flow, though, and Bassline captures both the transience of city life and a sense of ghostly, layered history.4 stars The Independent, By Michael Coveney, 20 July 2009
This one you have to see. Mojo writer, Jez Butterworth, has made a storming return to the British stage this year. Following his comic morality of suburban betrayal on the edge of the forest in Parlour Song at the Almeida, he goes right to the heart of things in Jerusalem, a dystopian hymn to hippie-dom on St George’s Day in darkest Wiltshire.
The play is given the full treatment 15 fine actors led by the peerless Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a generously wooded outdoor setting by Ultz, and a perfect production by Ian Rickson. It’s the best British rural play since David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come a very long time ago.
And it combines elements of the best of Alan Ayckbourn with the zonked-out zaniness of that great woolly “Archers on acid” saga, The Warp by Neil Oram.
Rooster gives some advice to his six- year-old son, who has visited the encampment with his mother: “School is a lie. Prison’s a waste of time. Girls are wondrous. Grab your fill… Don’t listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bids. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don’t give up. Show me your teeth.”
There’s no balancing argument to this manifesto, and one of the accusations hurled at Rooster and not resisted by him is that he’s a drug supplier to minors. Butterworth and Rylance have created one of the great mischievous monsters of modern theatre, a Lord of Misrule on the same scale as Falstaff or Jeffrey Bernard, a Pied Piper of protest and disaffection.
Rooster has a hilarious story of how he was kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens in Marlborough town centre. He’d got drunk and relieved himself in public, that’s all. There’s no room for excess in modern life any more.
Gerard Horan’s publican turns up for his stash of “whizz” dressed as a morris dancer. And one of the gang, Danny Kirrane’s plump xenophobe, Davey (nice Shakespearian name), reckons that the local BBC television programme has lost its way by reporting stories across the border in Wales.
It’s key that Rooster has worked as a painter, and his sidekick, Ginger beautifully done by Mackenzie Crook as a moonwalking zombie with delusions of adequacy as a plasterer. The new estate, which they are protesting against vociferously, is at least a potential source of income. But the authorities are on Rooster’s case and his days are numbered, just as the Queen of the May plaintively evokes a landscape of pastures green and dark satanic mills.
This farewell to the buried life of the Avebury Circle, the mysteries of Stonehenge and the legends of old Albion is also their last, defiant resurrection. Rylance is magnificent in a hugely demanding role, and restores one’s faith in the power of theatre to make a really beautiful noise and on a scale that is both epic and potentially popular.4 stars The Evening Standard, By Henry Hitchings, 16 July 2009
The word Jerusalem is a peculiarly evocative one for the English. It calls to mind not so much the capital of Israel or the spiritual centre of Judaism as the hymn which has become a surrogate national anthem – a touchstone for rugby fans, Promenaders and the WI.
In Jez Butterworth’s energetic new play William Blake’s vision of “England’s green and pleasant land” is transmuted into a fiesta of bucolic misrule. Set in a wood in an obscure part of Wiltshire on St Georges Day, Jerusalem is a paean to anarchic self-expression. It proudly repudiates the sterility of a world governed by Asbos, health and safety regulations and the micromanagement of pleasure.
The central figure, Johnny Byron, is a former daredevil biker who has become a sort of 21st-century Pied Piper, followed by teenagers and dropouts. Defiantly anti-authoritarian, he’s a mix of feral nuisance and latterday English martyr, barred from every local pub and shacked up with his memories and neuroses. The police are threatening to bulldoze his mobile home, and most of the local community want him gone.
Like the poet whose name he shares, Johnny Byron is mad, bad and dangerous to know. His is a world in which spliffs are “lush”, Class A drugs get raked into lines with a Trivial Pursuit card, and its plausible that someone would pee in an accordion.
Yet amid the narcotic carnage he also proves a curiously heroic figure, majestic despite his many flaws. In the hands of Mark Rylance he is an amoral aphorist, hedonistic sloth, piratical humorist and enthusiastic baiter of the “sausage-fingered constabulary”. He may be grubby and dishevelled, but intermittently he is Napoleonic.
Rylance has first-rate support. Mackenzie Crook excels as Johnny Byron’s almost wifely sidekick Ginger, and Tom Brooke as a young man whose faraway stare betrays a life given over to late nights and contraband substances.
Director Ian Rickson has skilfully marshalled the plays chaos; the production feels careful even in its occasional flights of carelessness. The set, by Ultz, is wonderfully detailed and atmospheric. Tall trees preside over a raunchily primitive chaos, intelligently lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin.
There are evident weaknesses in Butterworth’s text. After an explosive beginning the action meanders, especially in the second of the three acts. The story is thin. It’s also too long.
Yet it hardly seems to matter. Besides moments of gut-busting humour, the play is lit up by a profane intelligence that zeroes in on the pedantry of the nanny state.
And, in Johnny Byron, Butterworth has created a thrilling role. Rylance’s is an astonishing performance, which confirms that he is one of our finest stage actors.5 stars thelondonpaper, By Ben Dowell, 16 July 2009
Ah, rural England – its pleasant pastures, rolling hills… drug-dealing wasters and identikit housing estates.
Jez Butterworth’s startlingly brilliant new play is a tragic and hilarious vision of life in an English country community.
It’s St George’s Day and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is the familiar rural rogue, a charismatic gypsy drunkard (a tremendous Mark Rylance) who charms bored youth with his drugs and tall tales. Except now he’s faced with eviction from his woodland home and someone’s after him with threats of a kicking.
Office star Mackenzie Crook’s loyal Ginger and Tom Brooke’s dreamer Lee are particularly impressive as Byrons comrades, larger-than-life but carrying an authentic ring of druggie boredom and deprivation amid the grot of this brilliantly-realized glade.
And whether Byron is a modern day Bottom leading an anarchic carnival, or a troubled loser harbouring teenage girls, he is somehow redeemed by his evocation (however heartfelt or otherwise) of mythical giants and gypsy Kings.
Because behind the can-strewn turf and some bellyachingly good comic set pieces, his personality and myth-making motors a profoundly rich and complex story of England and the English, how we treat the land and our place in its myths and landscape.4 stars WhatsOnStage, By Michael Coveney, 16 July 2009
It’s St George’s Day in the heart of the forest, and the Queen of the May, a tentative teenager in fairy wings, sings William Blake’s famous anthem; we’ll hear the drumming of those feet in ancient time before long, and loudly, too, at the end of the evening.
The Flintock county fair is in full swing, and the community liaison officers of Kennet and Avon council are serving an eviction order on Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a spaced out middle-aged middle earth tramp, a Wiltshire Robin Hood living in a mobile home surrounded by wastrels.
Jez Butterworth’s new play Jerusalem, superbly directed by Ian Rickson, atmospherically designed by Ultz in a great forest of beech trees, is a wonderfully vivid three-act alternative state-of-the-nation play – running at well over three hours with two intervals – that plugs into urban myths and rural legends with an epic sense of the mystery of life in dull times.
Rooster is railing against the new estate, but he also knows that the houses will need re-painting before too long. He greets the new day – we’ve had a brief burst of the wild party night preceding it – by mixing what is obviously his habitual hair of the dog: milk and a raw egg laced with vodka and spiced with a sachet of speed.
Thus Mark Rylance embarks on the rollercoaster ride of his performance as a mischievous wild man, brimful of stories, banned from every pub in the neighbourhood, including the one run by Gerard Horan’s hangdog landlord who has been roped into the festivities as a Morris dancer; he’s only allowed his three grams of “whizz” after giving a dejected display.
Other regulars at Rooster’s include Mackenzie Crook’s dilapidated ex-plasterer Ginger, with ideas of being a deejay; Tom Brooke’s wild-eyed Lee who emerges disoriented from inside an old sofa having burnt all his things and bought a one-way ticket to Australia; and a pair of teenage girls played with forward insouciance by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Mills.
Butterworth’s deal is that we’ve lost something of our souls in the process of civilisation and the onward march of morality, and in one brilliant scene with his former partner Dawn (Lucy Montgomery) and their six-year-old son (Lenny Harvey), you smell the price Rooster’s paid for the liberty he pursues. Its a glorious evening, a feast of British character acting at its very best, led by Rooster Rylance at the top of his game.5 stars Time Out, By Caroline McGinn, 21 July 2009
It’s rare to see England’s green and pleasant land onstage at London’s urbane left-wing powerhouse, the Royal Court. But the countryside – or the ancient fresh air and freedoms thereof – is the stamping ground for visionary radicalism these days. And Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ is the rarest of beasts: a state-of-the-nation play which is a pastoral comedy; an edgy piece of new writing manned by a mostlymagnificent cast; and a polemic which, despite weighing in at three hours and 20 minutes, is hilarious and/or gripping throughout.
Mark Rylance is hypnotic as Rooster Johnny Byron – dealer, woodland caravan dweller, bane of Kennet and Avon Council and Lord of Misrule to the local teens. This weirdly noble ne’er-do-well is the darkheart of Butterworth’s play, which would otherwise be a comically accented slice of small-time rural life, as rambling and vivid as a two-day whizz and pills bender in the greenwoods (Byron and his merry gang’s way of celebrating St George’s day).
‘Jerusalem’ is honest about the despair that inspires these revels. But it has an acute poetic sympathy for their brain-expanding visionary appeal – especially if youre in a job where you slaughter 200 cows every day before lunch. Rylance’s Byron doesnt do much apart from gulp cocktails of vodka, whizz and a freshly laid egg for breakfast, but he leads a peasant’s revolt of the mind in a land increasingly dominated by the hypocritical regulations of the New Estate and the petty council officials who are determined to evict him. In Rylance’s hands, this limping ex-daredevil whose raggletaggle followers call him ‘gypo’ but still talk about the days when he tried to jump Stonehenge, comes over as a shaman in the shadow of Swindon: a teller of tall stories who’s as stooped and uncannily powerful as a standing stone. Director Ian Rickson also gets a lot out of the supporting cast of neglected teenage girls and drippy dropouts: Tom Brooke is a treat as wide-eyed would be emigre Lee Piper and Mackenzie Crook slouches his way into Byron’s sadsack hanger-on, Ginger. This is a production which you will find very hard to evict from your imagination.
- Writer Jez Butterworth and director Ian Rickson in discussion with the Royal Court’s Diversity Associate, Ola Animashawun. Download this Podcast