The greatest play of the twenty-first century? A good play elevated by an extraordinary lead performance? A nostalgic, nationalistic relic of a pre-Brexit age?
All of these accusations have been levelled at ‘Jerusalem’, but it feels like the only unarguable truth as it returns is that Jez Butterworth’s 2009 drama – combined with Mark Rylance’s lead performance – is the most hyped play of our lifetimes, perhaps the most hyped play ever by a living writer.
It’s a hell of a weight for one show to carry. And in keeping the original production alive, director Ian Rickson and team haven’t allowed ‘Jerusalem’ to pass into glorious legend: it has to live up to its reputation.
And it does.
I saw it once before, in 2011, on the last of its three previous London runs. As I recall, there have basically been no changes. From Ultz’s verdant set of lush, towering trees overlooking a shabby caravan that seems to have simply been dropped in the Avon countryside to Rylance’s shamanic turn as the caravan’s inhabitant, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, it’s all as I remember it.
And yet… ‘Jerusalem’ remains fresh and unexpected. In a weird way, its legend contributes to that: it’s been the subject of so much serious-minded discourse that it’s almost confounding to be thrown into a foul-mouthed comedy about Rylance’s drug-dealing old vagabond Byron and his various addled hanger-oners as they bum about the caravan, from which Rooster is due for imminent eviction as a public nuisance.
Hot media takes issued in advance of the play’s return have ranged from hand-wringing about whether its consideration of rebellious Englishness might now feel a bit Brexity to arguments that nobody would dare make it today because of political correctness gone mad. But watching it again, this all feels very silly. To say Byron represents nostalgia for an old England is to totally gloss over the fact he’s an actual Little England nightmare incarnate. And to say ‘Jerusalem’ wouldn’t be written now is to be wilfully blind to the fact that Butterworth’s plays haven’t felt in sync with prevailing trends since at least the ‘90s. (One concession to 2022 is a new programme essay from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller campaigner Tom Margetson – I don’t think Byron is meant to be a realistic portrait of a Traveller, but certainly he gets called ‘gyppo’ a lot, and the essay is welcome).
The endless discussions of ‘Jerusalem’ feels a bit irrelevant when you’re confronted by the reality of it
Really, this country’s simplistic, binary debates about nationalism are inadequate at framing Rylance’s ambivalent, unruly Byron. On one level, Butterworth is entirely uncelebratory of him: despite his charm, wit and gloriously florid phrasing, he’s also an out-of-control alcoholic whose coterie of ‘friends’ laugh at videos of him lying about paralytic and clearly only hang out with him for the Es and whizz. Even if he seems utterly unbothered by this, he is unarguably made to look pathetic in the second act when his sweet, wide-eyed son Marky is dropped off by the boy’s mother, Dawn (Indra Ové), for a promised trip to the local fair, and Byron feebly mumbles an excuse to get out of it. He is irresponsible, and not in a charming Robert Downey Jr style, just an old-school deadbeat dad way.
But then, there’s something about his sheer irrepressible nature that defies pity or revulsion. And for all his pathetic human frailties, the suggestion – intrinsically begged by Rylance’s superhuman performance – gnaws away that Rooster is somehow not entirely of our universe. There’s the very funny account from his pal Ginger (Mackenzie Crook, returning from the first cast) of how Byron apparently came back from the dead once; there’s Byron’s own story about how he once met an 80-foot giant who gave him a golden drum; he has many fantastical anecdotes that seem like addled, self-mythologising bullshit… but the thought increasingly occurs that perhaps everything Byron is saying might be true. Is he just a decrepit druggie, about to be finally crushed by the boring tide of southwestern suburbia? Or is he an ancient spirit of the woods, a last trace of an older, wilder, more dangerous world that we turned our backs on?
Key to Rylance’s titanic performance is that he’s effectively both at the same time: a limping, mumbling addict who is hated by the locals, finally reaping what he's recklessly sown; and a stocky, physically assured man who performs athletic headstands, knows the answer to every single question in Trivial Pursuit (sometimes even before it’s asked) and shares stories of supernatural beings he’s met with deadly earnestness. Rylance performs him as a frail human and a powerful folkloric being all at once; his Byron is the possibility of magic in this world, but also the probability of extreme disappointment. The play climaxes just as the wild magic is finally invoked and the giants are summoned. Is any of it real? On one level, we never find out; on the other, Rylance’s extraordinary final monologue, in which reality seems to warp and the room converges entirely on him, is clearly magic happening right in front of our eyes.
I doubt the legacy of ‘Jerusalem’ is really going to be settled until Mark Rylance leaves it, because the power of Rooster Byron as a character is so hard to separate from his performance (there have been smaller productions around the world, nothing approaching the scale of this one). Which is just fine: all the endless discussion of the play feels a bit irrelevant when you’re confronted by the elemental reality of the thing itself. Leave it to future generations to decide where it goes on a list. For a few months, it has returned to our dark, satanic mills. Come, you giants!
‘Jerusalem’ is virtually sold out. However, fresh tickets are released at 10am on Monday for that week’s performances from JerusalemThePlay.co.uk. And a limited number of day seats are available from the Apollo Theatre box office at 10am each morning (queue early!).