If life does indeed come down to just a single moment, mine probably arrived last week on Easter Monday when I witnessed Mark Rylance on stage as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. His combination of theatricality and verbal vivacity is extraordinary.
First staged at the Royal Court in 2009, Jez Butterworth’s seismic play about national identity has returned to the West End for a limited 16 week engagement. Following record-breaking runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as well on Broadway in 2011, this stint is set to rake in £14 million.
Sonia Friedman’s globe conquering revival tells the story of a freewheeling man that faces eviction for unauthorised encampment in a Wiltshire wood on the day of the local fair.
Butterworth said that when he first saw Rylance as Rooster it was “the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen”. Reader, I can corroborate this claim, Jerusalem is the purest form of theatre gold and Rylance is hypnotic. Underneath the rich and decaying leafy Brechtian design by ULTZ live chickens, a tortoise, a goldfish, and various lost souls. It is a totally spellbinding, haunting and unforgettable evening.
A tatty 30ft St George’s Day flag drop curtain greets you as you take to your seat. Butterworth’s epochal writing, it’s fair to say, hit me with the same force; in the character of “Rooster” Byron, we find an emblem of both England and the English language, like Falstaff on acid. “I dreamt all night of waterfalls,” Rooster says at the start, “Riches. Fame. A glimpse of God’s tail… Comes a time you’d swap it all for a solid golden p— on English soil.”
Theatre’s all about timing, and with enthusiastic audiences flocking to auditoriums, Ian Rickson’s extraordinary production has returned just at the right time. Rooster’s bonkers tales about giants on the A1 take on a spiritual believability under Rylance’s stagecraft, but they’re also very, very funny. In any case, ambivalence is the key word here, I think.
There is something mesmerising about a man living in a wood who hasn’t woken up yet to the tragedy of his predicament, who is still left beating the same old drum. Literally, culturally, and politically.
The elephant in the room here is, of course, Rooster’s Romany heritage – the “gypo” slurs, the gold jewellery, the fair, the violence, the caravan in the woods and the drugs. (Butterworth’s play owes much to the time he spent with a retired Romany builder called Micky Lay). Stronger efforts to improve outcomes and representation for these severely disadvantaged communities are overdue. To this end, and following minor tweaks, Rylance’s portrayal never feels offensive or clumsy.
Real-world politics cast a subtly different light on proceedings; this restaging reveals a yearning for a bygone Britain that never really existed. The Englishness which Jerusalem supposedly explored is now an even knottier concept than it was in 2009.
And anyway, Butterworth is adamant that critics still miss the point. “If this is any way a state-of-the-nation play, then I have failed abjectly,” he said at a recent event.
He added: “You know how much I give a monkeys about the ‘state of the nation’, adding that Englishness was not a concern of his, explaining: “I don’t feel very English… The reason it is back is my daughter Bel never got the chance to see it.”
We need to celebrate and enjoy Jerusalem now so we can remember there was a time, before the cripplingly dull, joyless, and inflexible wave of new writing that engulfed everything, when going to the theatre used to be so much fun.
Jerusalem is old-fashioned (3 hours, two intervals) and its return wonderfully sticks a bonfire under the problematic theatre echo chamber that caused the great British sense of humour failure of 2012-2020
A theatre moment to cherish for ever.