at the Apollo Theatre, Saturday 24th April 2010
It is fitting that the last performance of the West End run of Jez Butterworth’s astonishing play Jerusalem should be on 24th April, meaning that the cast and crew had to pack up their belongings and leave the very same day Johnny Byron is forced to evict his caravan in Flintock woods. And just like Johnny, nobody wants to go.
The premise for the story is simple; it is St George’s day, and one man, living on his own in a caravan in the woods and host to many parties, is being forced to vacate his current premises in order that Kennet and Avon can build a new estate in the area. His friends Ginger, Lee, Davey, the Professor, Pea and Tanya join him at various points throughout the day as they go to and from the fair. Perhaps this indescribable simplicity is what makes the play so sublime, yet at the same time there are many layers which are all unveiled in parallel to the basic narrative.
Butterworth’s main gripes are with corporations whose double standards mean one person, the centre of a community, can be thrown out of his lifelong home in order that a few hundred new ones can be built. The playwright revels in English eccentricity and myths and creates a story which, while relevent in the modern world, could easily have been told in the past and will no doubt be repeated in the future.
Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, played extraordinarily by Mark Rylance, could be the one of the best characters ever to have been created for the English stage. Whilst on paper his antics and behaviour seem to be fairly despicable, we could not feel more empathy. His drug use, alcoholism and vulgar language are forgotten in the light of his compassion, independence and fantastically elaborate tales. He is a story-teller, and leaves no detail untold when reciting his encounter with a 90 foot tall giant and other amazing anecdotes. Mark Rylance embodies the role completely and there is no doubt that men like Rooster exist all over England.
Other inhabitants of this world are Mackenzie Crook’s Ginger, the outsider of the group with delusions of being a DJ, and Tom Brooke’s Lee, a man whose down-to-earth nature allows him to see in from another point of view. The performances of the rest of the cast are faultless and every word uttered is believed wholeheartedly.
Never before has such an impressive and organic set been seen on the London stage. Designed by Ultz, a shiny metal caravan is marooned amongst trees which stretch out to the roof and as live chickens peck away at the foliage we are reminded of happier and simpler times. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s moody yet imperceptible lighting design directs us who we should be watching without making itself obvious and Ian Dickenson’s tranquil sounds of birds and trees are constantly interrupted by planes and the sounds of modern living.
The play swings from tragic to comic, bawdy to serious, extroverted to introverted. It is in the last act, however, that Ian Rickson’s production really comes into its own. As the inevitable climax draws closer it becomes unbearable to watch but it is that thought makes watching only more enticing. Byron’s last monologue as he bangs his drum to call the giants sends the audience’s collective heart beating and as the curtain comes down we are left shaking and wondering if any play will ever effect in the same way. Mark Rylance in his speech signalling the end of the run hinted that the play could be back in the near future, and possibly with the same cast. We live in hope.