Jerusalem is back — but should we be still singing its praises?
Heralded as the play of the century, Jez Butterworth’s chest-beating state of the nation epic returns to the Apollo after just over a decade. It raised the profile of both the playwright and its star Mark Rylance — both went onto success in Hollywood and Broadway and, in terms of staging and sheer theatrical effect, much of what we saw in 2010 hasn’t changed.
Rylance plays John “Rooster” Byron, a shamanic local figure who deals drugs from his caravan while staying a step ahead of eviction. Aided and abetted by Mackenzie Crook as Ginger — an unemployed plasterer-slash-wannabe DJ — Byron holds court telling tall tales to the crew of young locals he hangs out with. Booze and banter abound while England and Englishness are the unsubtle subtext here (the curtain is emblazoned with a huge St. George’s Cross).
Rylance delivers a powerhouse performance that has to be seen to be believed. He embodies Rooster’s exuberant outlook and dark interior equally well, effortlessly pulling us into his world. Butterworth’s prescient words precede — and perhaps predict — the sentiments that led to not just Brexit but the increasing appeal of populist figures like Trump, Farage and Johnson.
OK, some of the script’s references are dated (Spice Girls, Chumbawamba and Bin Laden) and the #metoo generation may raise an eyebrow at some of the language and gags. Focussing all the action on Rooster means that there is no real counterpoint or contrast to his wild and wide-ranging views. The whole thing lasts three hours too — and the final gruelling scenes eschew the bouncy humour in favour of a bloody denouement.
Still, Rylance’s performance is on another level, and that alone make Jerusalem well worth seeing (if you can get a ticket).