Re:Re:View – ‘Jerusalem’
I missed this play first time around and am thrilled it came back with the original cast intact. Jex Butterworth has matured as a playwright in the last few years, but his edge is as sharp as ever. This is a big evening; a lengthy three-act exploration of the power of English mythology.
Id Mark Rylance’s Johnny Byron merely a truth-stretching gypsy who doles out drugs to kids, or is he the Pagan spirit of the English countryside, ready to fight for the values his country has so gleefully abandoned? Rooster is a recognised archetype, the king/holy fool surrounded by a court of his own manufacture.
On St George’s Day, the eve of his eviction from the forest where they plan to build new homes, Byron gathers his acolytes for a final stand. But the fight is already lost, and only martyrdom beckons. Once he’d been a hero, now he spins tales about giants for stoned teens, but Byron is a giant himself, a shaman, a liar, an unlikeable companion for over three hours and yet his gruesome fall breaks your heart.
His jester/ young pretender is Mackenzie Crook, perfect as the disbeliever of his tall tales, refusing to buy into the story of the giant because it would have been reported on the local news.
When the play opened on Broadway it was revised to remove some of the Englishness, and in truth my Kiwi partner was mystified by certain sections, never more so than when Byron summons an immense roll-call of English Pagan deities to his side.
But even for those utterly puzzled by the densely referenced script, there are compensations – the jokes are laugh-aloud funny (Byron’s barter system at one point requires the exchange of two grams of cocaine for a tortoise), and Rylance’s astonishingly visceral performance. I can’t imagine how tiring it must be to couple these ranting monologues with a bone-shattering physicality of the kind rarely seen on the stage these days.
It’s back for 14 weeks, it’s a genuine masterpiece, and even if you don’t like it you won’t forget it (although the tourists next to me left after the first act because ‘there’s too much swearing’ – incredible.)