A phenomenal success
From The Economist
JEZ BUTTERWORTH and Mark Rylance are an odd couple. Six years ago Mr Rylance was running Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames, where he distinguished himself by playing Cleopatra as well as Hamlet. Mr Butterworth was a promising playwright, the singular quality of his dramatic imagination being evident at Cambridge University, where he had adapted for the stage a cookbook by Katharine Whitehorn.
In 2003 Mr Butterworth sent to Mr Rylance the first draft of a play called “Jerusalem”, about anarchy and authority. It was set in rural Wiltshire, and its hero, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, was a drug taker and dealer, a seducer of adolescent girls, a hard-drinking and hard-swearing romantic fantasist. Rooster lived in a mobile home parked illegally in a glade in the woods where he held wild parties and mocked society and its institutions, especially the Kennet and Avon Council.
Mr Rylance liked what he read so much that he agreed to take on the part when the play was completed. Mr Butterworth took himself off to Somerset, where he breeds pigs on his smallholding and takes his dog for long walks. Having finished a successful directorship of the Globe, Mr Rylance went on to play a variety of roles in the commercial theatre.
“Jerusalem” finally opened at the Royal Court Theatre last July, directed by Ian Rickson, their mutual friend; its reputation spread quickly by word of mouth. It soon sold out, and during the winter playwright and actor swept both major theatre awards. The success of “Jerusalem” has been phenomenal, appealing, as John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter did, also at the Royal Court, in 1956, to the instinctive rebelliousness of the young, though its contempt for “health and safety” extends its appeal to an older generation.
Rooster’s mobile home is parked beneath the leaves of real trees, with a hen coop, and a clutter of broken furniture. Mr Rylance makes an astonishing entry, flinging himself into a handstand on a tank of water and dunking his whole head in. He is an anarchic life force, presiding over a “Bucolic Alcoholic Frolic” attended by alienated young girls and grown-up losers, one of whom delivers a quite original definition of what makes local TV news local: “to make any sense [of it] you’ve got to have at least a chance of shagging the weather girl”.
The action is set on St George’s Day when a fair is held in the village. The play is frenetic, uproarious and foul-mouthed, a lament for an idealised, free and easy rural England, infused with legends of gods and giants, that has succumbed to invasive bureaucracy. Rooster tells of his meeting with a 90-foot giant (“Just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef”). The giant, who claims, incidentally, to have built Stonehenge, warms to Rooster and gives him a drum; if he ever needs help he should bang it and the giants will come.
At the end of “Jerusalem”, as the Rooster is about to be evicted from his mobile home, Mr Rylance gives a virtuoso performance on that drum. In the final moments, heavy footsteps are audible offstage. Who comes? A giant—or the two dozen policemen who are about to evict him? The state sledgehammer is surely about to crack the nut, and Rooster’s subversiveness takes on a heroic grandeur.
The only problem with this absorbing play is that Mr Rylance’s brilliance may deter other actors. That would be a terrible shame. This “Jerusalem” is a memorable production. Someone should film it.
“Jerusalem” runs at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London until April 24th