Image by Simon Annand

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth – Apollo Theatre, London

Jerusalem is a big deal. Beginning life at the Royal Court in 2009, it became the most fêted new play of the century, and took off to the extent that Mark Rylance’s performance as John ‘Rooster’ Byron is routinely described as the greatest of our times. So why had I not seen it before its return this summer, with Rylance and Mackenzie Crook reprising their roles? It has many things I appreciate in theatre – an examination of Englishness, rural weirdness and retooled folk culture being three of them. But, after the Royal Court run sold out, it transferred to the Apollo Theatre, one of Shaftesbury Avenue’s Victorian auditoriums which I always find diminish the experience of watching anything, however good, so I avoided it. And then, lured by a similar buzz, I saw Jez Butterworth’s follow-up, The Ferryman, in just such a theatre and hated it to a degree I was not expecting. So I went to see the revived Jerusalem to see if it provided a different perspective on Butterworth’s work. I enjoyed it much more than The Ferryman, but it’s a play with some major problems too.

On the upside, Mark Rylance is remarkable. He undergoes the kind of physical transformation Olivier was famed for, sticking out his chest and cocking his back like a rooster, strutting with a spliff in his mouth. He is very funny, at his best in exchanges with the excellent Mackenzie Crook as Ginger. He is also lost and desperate, a man who’s running out of drugs and dodges. And there is a remarkable moment when he asks Dawn, the mother of his child, who tries to get him to face up to his approaching eviction, to look into his eyes. What she sees there convinces her she needn’t worry – whether it’s the ancient giant he claims to have met near a Little Chef on the A338, or just the depth of his determination. Rooster as a character is very morally ambiguous indeed – selling drugs, ignoring his own young son, using women, living in a fantasy world, and making amusing anecdotes of incidents that are, in reality, grim. This complexity gives Rylance a great deal to play with. The character of Rooster was apparently based on Mickey Lay, of Pewsey in Wiltshire, who spent a lot of time in its many pubs (including The Moonrakers, referenced in the play). Trumping anything Butterworth could invent, he died of a heart attack in 2014, waiting for it to open.

Crook is great too. Jerusalem seemed to launch him into a new, fertile phase of his career leading on to The Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge, two minor tv masterpieces, each examining the pastoral underbelly in different ways. He is a thoroughly likeable, but somewhat tragic figure, deluding himself and doomed to be pushed away by Rooster, for his own good. He is the most sympathetic rogue imaginable.

The set by Ultz is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine real trees looking more convincing than the full sized grove filling the stage while the detritus scattered around Rooster’s caravan, from sports car seats to the flag of Wessex, is fascinating in itself.

The play is a riot at times – almost literally when Rooster’s friends form a barricade behind his abandoned sofa and convince themselves they will rampage through the town and burn the ‘new estate’. When the group dynamics click on stage, it works exceptionally well. Ian Rickson, directing, manages the chaos with an expert hand.

On the downside, at three hours it really is too long. With an event-light plot, the running time is an indulgence and the pace sags considerably at various points, including during the final act when the dramatic urgency traditionally picks up. Butterworth seems to be putting off the inevitable resolution (or lack of resolution) which is flagged from the very first scene, when council officers arrive to serve an eviction notice, because the play has to end before the police move in.

The female characters are very limited: two identikit teenagers getting drunk, another dressed as a fairy, and Rooster’s ex-partner Dawn. The impressive Indra Ové makes a great deal of her one real scene, during which Rooster suddenly seems like a wrecker of lives rather than an eccentric. And then there is Wesley’s offstage, nagging wife – a stereotype apparently still alive and kicking. This is at best a missed opportunity and, at worst, regressive writing that will only continue to date this play.

Rooster’s friends are intended, at least in part, to be funny but sometimes what we’re supposed to be laughing at really isn’t amusing. They lech over ‘slappers’, and hold stereotype rural views. Davey doesn’t see the point of going anywhere beyond Wiltshire, and explains how he read about a murder in the paper and realised he didn’t care, because it happened in Wales. The likeability of Rooster’s hangers on is skin-deep, but so is their believability as characters – especially in the first act, when the writing resembles sketch comedy more than stage drama, and they seem like small town types there for us to laugh at. We’re expected to laugh along with their little England views and indulge their destructive behaviour.

I was also troubled by the liberal use of the term ‘gyppo’, by sympathetic and hostile characters alike. It was highly offensive in 2009 and still is. I don’t think Butterworth would consider normalising any other racial slight in the same way. I’m not sure the play can be staged again without edits, which should probably have been made before this run.

However, despite its defects Jerusalem has a performance from Mark Rylance which really lives up to its billing. He, on his own, is reason enough to see the play… if you can get a ticket.

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