The only question hovering over Jerusalem is not whether Jez Butterworth’s play is good enough to revive, but who on earth would have the cahones to follow in Mark Rylance’s footsteps when one day — though not yet — the play is revived without him?
For has any actor owned a role quite so emphatically as Rylance possesses Johnny “Rooster” Byron?
Memories of Ian Rickson’s original production were seared into the minds of those who were at the Royal Court premiere in 2009 or the various West End and Broadway runs that followed. It may sound like hyperbole to say that for many of us this was the play we did not know we had been waiting for all our theatregoing life until we saw it. But it was.
This time around, with Rylance back as Rooster and the equally wonderful Mackenzie Crook as his hanger-on mate Ginger, the work has if anything deepened into its many themes. One of these is the instinct of small C conservatism to extinguish human life that does not conform to its picket-fenced boundaries. Rooster’s home is a caravan sited within a Wiltshire wood under whose canopy dappled light falls like spring rain.
The place is a hang-out for local youth who drink and take drugs there, much if it supplied by Rooster himself. Occasional impromptu raves punctuate the serene landscape. But from Rooster’s point of view what scars it is the encroaching new estate across the vale.
After many complaints from residents of the development and the nearby village, the council have finally nailed an eviction notice on Rooster’s door. He has 24 hours to leave before he will be forcibly evicted. An army of riot police is reportedly gathering such is Rooster’s wild-man reputation.
There are those who have complimented Butterworth’s play as “breaking all the rules’”much like its hero. Yet there are few theatre conventions more established than attaching a clock to a plot or framing it within the three act structure of the “well made play”, both of which, to its credit, are present here.
Indra Ove (Dawn) and Kobe Champion-Norville (Marky)
Against this relentless countdown the tension is ratcheted up as the play barrels towards its final reckoning. It will be here that Rooster’s tall stories, rooted in England’s dormant folklore and taller than the 100ft giant who told Rooster that he built Stonehenge, will be tested.
Meanwhile the close horizons of village life exert a stir-crazy madness on the youngsters who hang at the caravan, and who either dream of escape or embrace life with no ambition.
Alongside the monumental Rylance, Crook as the hapless Ginger delivers one of the most touching comic performances you will ever see. (Why do we see so little of him?). Other standout performances include Jack Riddiford as young Lee who plans to escape the vale for Australia and Ed Kear as his mate Davey who reconciles himself to life working in an abattoir and getting off his face at weekends.
Also excellent is Indra Ové as the mother of Rooster’s six-year-old son, to whom Rooster imparts the best fatherly advice a boy will hear. However the evening is owned by Rylance who like the English lore that runs through Rooster’s veins is dirty, dangerous and wise.