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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Apollo


  Ph: Simon Annand

Jez Butterworth’s drama, now transferred in Ian Rickson’s luminous Royal Court production to the West End, is in many ways an elegy for a lost England – yet rarely has a lament seemed so celebratory.
Jerusalem harks back to a land of the Green Man and the Golden Bough, of the devil-may-care revolutionary dash and ravishing romanticism of Lord Byron. It’s a heritage largely neglected by the country’s modern inhabitants – poignantly, among Butterworth’s collection of irresistibly vivid characters, it’s the addle-brained, elderly, intellectual eccentric, named only as the Professor, who has the keenest sense of history, and in preserving a sense of the past he has to an extent sacrificed his connection with the present. But if the Professor, touchingly portrayed by Alan David, sniffs the spring air for a scent of the magical, antic, ancient spirit of the English countryside, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron – a gypsy whose very name recalls the club-footed poet, and who lives in a caravan in the Wiltshire woods – embodies it. And in Mark Rylance’s extraordinary performance, the mythology becomes man and roars into defiant, exuberant life.
Ultz’s designs offer a glowing, dream-like setting. The over-arching canopy of Rooster’s Wood is dazzlingly verdant and sunlit. Real chickens peck and pick their way around wire coops behind Johnny’s trailer. Winter is over, it’s St George’s Day, and the inhabitants of the Wiltshire village of Flintock are in a festive mood, preparing for their annual fair. The trappings of tradition are here, albeit in modern, commercialised form. The local publican, Wesley (Gerard Horan), has been cajoled by his brewery into performing a Morris dance; miscreants are placed in the stocks to be pelted with wet sponges; only now the victim is the female vicar and the punishment is just for comical show. Formerly, Johnny would have given a public display of his death-defying daredevil skills on such an occasion; but health-and-safety regulations have put paid to that, and this year, he’s also due to be evicted from the patch of woodland that is his home by the local council.
Undaunted, this Falstaff figure – branded, like Shakespeare’s creation, a “corrupter of youth” – hails the English saint’s day by throwing open his well-stocked chest of drugs and booze, to the delight of the local youngsters, who swarm around him like rats pursuing the Pied Piper. With his broad, muscular shoulders, strutting, limping gait, treasury of tall tales and irrepressible earthy charisma, Rylance’s Byron is satyr-like – a creature too pungently, hairily glamorous, too wreathed in stories of giants and werewolves, for the mundanities of 21st-century life. And it is the unblinking, unimaginative eye of modern technology that is his greatest enemy: the video camera that the officious council workers bring to record their attempts to turn him out of his trailer, the mobile phone used to film and humiliate him when he’s drunk and helpless, the footage sniggered over by all his hangers-on.
Johnny’s day, and Rylance’s performance, begins with morning ablutions – a hair wash executed by flipping a handstand into a horse trough – and a pick-me-up of raw egg, vodka and speed. Here and throughout, Rylance is extraordinary, whether acting the magnanimous Lord of Misrule as he presides over his Feast of Fools, finding himself uncharacteristically out of his depth when confronted with the small son whom he fathered, or flirting goatishly with the boy’s mother (Amy Beth Hayes), who, despite her exasperation, is very nearly seduced once again. The rest of the ensemble is stuffed with terrific performances, notably Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, the most faithful of Johnny’s acolytes, Tom Brooke as lanky Lee, who dreams of escaping Wiltshire for adventure in Australia, and Danny Kirrane as Davey, a defeated abattoir worker whose fear of what lies beyond the county borders will keep him trapped there permanently. But Rylance’s Johnny is the wild, anarchic heartbeat of a play and a production that are exhilaratingly vital.

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