I've never been a great fan of actor Mark Rylance. The reasons are lost in the depths of time to the extent that I no longer remember what started it off in the first place. However, having seen him in 'Jerusalem', I have to say that the slate is now wiped clean and based on this performance, Rylance should be heading for awards along with playwright Jez Butterworth whose hilarious, yet deeply meaningful play has all the hallmarks of a modern classic.
Mark Rylance's character – Johnny 'Rooster' Byron - is not exactly an angel. He sells a wide variety of drugs to the local population – many of them still of school age. He breakfasts on milk and vodka, is not in the least abashed about seducing any of the local wives who might be available, and he largely ignores his young son. It's hardly the record of a saint. But yet you cannot help warming to a character who reels off stories about meeting up with giants as though talking about a local race meeting.
Rooster Byron lives in a caravan in the middle of a wood. A new estate is the focus of his hatred, but he's the one on the wrong end of the law as he's due to be evicted. Though he says he doesn't care, he also convinces us that he knows his time is up. He's surrounded by an odd assortment of characters who all, to some extent or other, feed on him.
It's always a little risky asking an audience to pay attention for 3 hours or so. But, with 'Jerusalem', the time speeds by to the extent that it's over almost in a flash. With an infectiously brilliant performance from Rylance, it's no wonder that the rest of the cast pull out all the stops to produce equally compelling characters of their own. Mackenzie Crook is the wannabe DJ, Ginger, who's been hanging out and partying with Rooster for more years than he can remember. Alan David is the slightly potty professor who doesn't know when he's been slipped acid, and Gerard Horan is the publican who in one instant is begging Rooster for drugs and the next minute banning him from his hostelry. But, to be fair, this is a fine ensemble cast all round, and there's ample room for everyone to shine, and they all do.
Ultz's design is a fitting canvas for this stunning play. Huge trees that you can almost hear growing surround the American-style caravan in which Rooster lives. The 'van is surrounded by sofas, fridges, and an old water tank that doubles as a wine cooler. Under the 'van, there's a chicken run with a live chicken in it, and a goldfish and a tortoise put in appearances.
Underlying the success of this play is a very fine, model script by Jez Butterworth. The first act would have you believe that the play is basically a comedy, but by the beginning of the second act, the mood has already shifted as Rooster's eviction draws nearer, and menacing influences begin to enter the fray. Ian Rickson's direction is also superb. Pacey, but unhurried, Rickson has the confidence and ingenuity to let Mark Rylance display his immense talents and skills without crowding out the minor characters.
In a sense, 'Jerusalem' is a modern morality tale that speaks of lost communities, lost freedoms and lost opportunities. It's a condemnation of a society that forces us into compliance with rules and regulations – the 'health and safety' culture that has banished risk and inventiveness. Rooster is the man who provides escape from the drudgery of the tedious lives we've built for ourselves and the man everyone loves to be with while the party is in full swing. But, predictably, he's the one who pays the ultimate price and the play ends with him friendless and alone.
A tour de force from all concerned, you'll be kicking yourself for years to come if you don't see it.
"Even better than its award-laden, ecstatic publicity suggests...Rickson's cast are uniformly superb in all their cranky idiosyncracies. But Rylance is...in a league of his own."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Butterworth’s script shines with self-knowing wit and compassion. Rickson’s direction is so good that you don’t notice it: Jerusalem simply looks and feels like real life, but with all the boring bits taken out. A hilarious, enchanting, affecting evening. ."
Dominic Maxwell for The Times
"Jez Butterworth's play gains immeasurably from a second viewing. Like everyone else, I was mesmerised, on its first appearance at the Royal Court."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"its astonishing star performance from Mark Rylance, knocked me for six when it opened at the Royal Court last summer. It has now transferred to the West End and seems as miraculously fresh, funny, moving and mysterious the second time around."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Butterworth’s text remains digressive but within its baggy corpulence there’s a satisfying tautness, and its world view is refreshing, humane, touching and wickedly funny."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard