Jez Butterworth’s new play Jerusalem aroused my deepest prejudices when I first heard about it. A state-of-the-nation play set around a mobile home in a tip, dealing with the anti-social antics of a drunken gypsy dope dealer and a few hopeless teenagers, struck me as something well worth missing. When the play moved from the Royal Court to the Apollo Theatre in the West End, and people kept saying how outstanding it was, I was tempted by their enthusiasm to cling perversely to my prejudices. That was very wrong. Jerusalem, despite some faults, is one of those rare productions that should not be missed. There is still a chance to see it.
It is indeed a state-of-the nation drama about a gypsy drug dealer living in a rubbish dump in a woodland clearing from which the council is threatening to evict him. He is surrounded, like a delinquent Pied Piper, by troubled kids in pursuit of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But Jerusalem is about more than that. For all the contemporary love and squalor, all the swearing and vomiting and underage sex, all the jokes and the badger shit, this is a play about ancient myth and magic. It is about the anarchic power of the green wood and the folklore of the didicoi-the English Romanies. It is about long-lost folk stories and forgotten giants and the laying of curses. It is also very funny.
Jerusalem is both a celebration of England’s green and pleasant land, past and present, and a lament. It straddles time and convention, from West Country effing and blinding to ancient incantation, from light comedy to tragic brutality, from Gog and Magog and Hern the Hunter to the Lord of Misrule and the abused Queen of the May, from the magic of the wild wood to the bulldozers of Kennet and Avon council. Even the council’s name has resonance: it conjures up the swan of Avon and the forest of Arden. To bring all these elements together in a play that is extremely moving and to do so without a trace of kitsch, whimsy or Merrie England is a remarkable artistic achievement, not least when all the dialogue is in a West Country accent.
Butterworth must take credit for most of this. He is a powerful counter-example to the theory that there aren’t many great playwrights around today. The breadth of his imagination and the range of his language are dazzling. He can move from low-life West Country incoherence to poetic lyricism in almost the same moment. Just as his play is unusually rich in the resonances of English history, his dialogue is unusually rich in the resonances of the English language. Even so, Jerusalem‘s success absolutely depends on the exceptional performance of Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Bryan, the play’s heroic anti-hero and the strutting cock of Rooster’s Wood. Rylance makes the play, and this is a double achievement, because he does so despite the weakness of some of the other actors.
It is not common these days to see several actors in one major production who fail to do a play justice. The standard of acting in this country is so high and competition for work so fierce that it ought never to happen. Yet in this play at least three actors had poor diction and garbled their words, at times shrieking in monotones. There were honourable exceptions. Gerard Horan gave a strong performance as the unhappy, Morris-dancing pub landlord, and Mackenzie Crook was essential as Rooster’s grumpy foil. But some of the cast members lacked conviction and stage presence at times, possibly because they were all upstaged by Rylance.
He has such virtuosity that he can convey more meanings with a gesture or a posture than someone watching can consciously perceive. So he is able to control the audience in ways we barely understand. Playing Hamm recently in a celebrated Complicité production of Beckett’s Endgame, with covered eyes and crippled legs, he managed just with his voice and fingers to conjure up a variety of references, personalities and moods. The word for this is Protean, from the mythic sea god Proteus who could assume many different forms. It is the stuff of magic.
Rylance’s Protean gifts are responsible for much of the oddly magical power of this production. Without such an actor I doubt whether the complex ambitions of the play could have been realised. He makes Rooster into a man with an almost physical aura of the supernatural around him, a man who cannot be contained, a man who can transform himself into countless different things, from moment to moment. He is Chanticleer the cock, he is the sad clown, he is Dionysus, Puck, Charlie Chaplin, Falstaff, the lonely drunk, the werewolf, the pugilist, the double-jointed stunt man, the soothsayer, the hypnotist and not quite the last of an ancient bloodline of Romanies. He even, fleetingly, conjures up the man on the old Gitanes advertisement.
Although Rylance is so central to the atmosphere of the play, it is also well served by the designer (Ultz) and the lighting and sound designers (Mimi Jordan Sherin and Ian Dickinson). The lush green English trees of the set, unspoiled somehow by the Rooster’s trashy dominion, are given a supernatural intensity at times by both lighting and sound, so much so that time seems to slow down. And the strains of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending before curtain-up, shortly followed by a musical and visual shock, combine to set up the ambiguities within the play almost before it begins. This is almost the best of English theatre, about the best and the worst of England.