Jez Butterworth’s English country drama and Mark Rylance’s astonishing performance in it have become stage legend. But forget rose-tinted nostalgia: Ian Rickson’s masterful revival, coming 13 years after his original, enthusiastically received Royal Court production, is yet another triumph.
Brexit, Covid and the so-called culture wars give Jerusalem new context. It emerges undated but reframed, still a bit baggy but shockingly nice, deeply compassionate for today.
It feels darker, more melancholy. There is boisterous joy and salty wit in its evocation of Englishness, but also fear, cruelty, insularity, loneliness, and a deep, desolate sadness.
As for Rylance as Butterworth’s noisy Lord of Misrule, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, he’s vital, fascinating, otherworldly, and poignantly older. There’s a fragility about him, for all his solid, tattooed flesh and vigorous bragging about him; sometimes his eyes, large and bright in that weathered, drinking face, are those of a child.
Johnny is the town misfit, a retired motorcyclist daredevil who crashed his caravan in a Wiltshire forest and has been living there in spectacular disrepute ever since.
The council wants him out, and they’ve given him 24 hours to get out. But it’s St. George’s Day, the spring fair is in full swing, and he’s presiding over a “bucolic booze party” with a rabble of hangers-on, including Ginger, an unemployed plasterer with DJ ambitions (touchingly and quietly desperate, Mackenzie Crook, as Rylance reprising the role he created).
Plus, the council’s bulldozers are the least of it: the 15-year-old May Queen has disappeared, and her bully stepfather suspects the involvement of Johnny, whose drugs, alcohol, and tall tales are rubbish for bored teenagers.
Ultz’s design, with its faded St. George flag, a debris-strewn jungle grove, and real chickens, is part pastoral beauty, part misery, with a shimmering golden green in Mimi Jordan Sherin’s sunbeam lighting .
Rickson’s production beautifully melds every shimmer and chill: betrayals and petty acts of spite poke holes in the camaraderie, cowardice and pettiness of disappointing and limited lives.
Rylance’s Johnny is both anti-establishment folk hero and tragic clown. He has a wild and mysterious charisma, as he’ll stand on his head in a watering hole to wash off a hangover, quell an argument with just an intense stare, or tell stories of giants or ghosts; however, he is also a drifter who has abandoned his pragmatic and exasperated ex (Indra Ové) and his young son.
Part Pied Piper, he calls children who are drawn to his lair in the woods “rats”; sometimes he himself looks like a cornered fox.
Rooted in England’s ancient past and reaching into its ignominious present, Butterworth’s work is steeped in myth. Well, here’s one you can believe in: this is rich and haunting theater, and Rylance is, once again, unforgettable.
Until August 7 www.jerusalemtheplay.co.uk
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Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre, review: Mark Rylance is unforgettable in a triumphant revival – Home