Sunday, 9 October 2011

Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre


Jerusalem, the Olivier- and Tony-award winning play written and directed by Jez Butterworth and Ian Rickson respectively, was arguably the best play I have seen in London: wickedly funny, timely and featuring a great performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, whose character drives the play. Once again, the play began at the Royal Court but we missed it there and had to catch the West End transfer. Unlike Enron, however, Jerusalem's rapturous reviews were deserved this time.

Byron is a drug dealer who has lived for twenty years in a caravan in a wood on the edge of a Wiltshire village. His life consists of liberal partying with teenagers and local outcasts, all of whom are welcome to his domain. Perhaps because of this setting and of its mythological overtones, several critics have commented that the play is reminiscent of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. What makes Byron such an interesting character, however, is that he is also the embodiment of both tradition and subversion, the voice of Britain's pagan past railing against modern development and hypocrisy. Byron is also a charming story-spinner, who on several occasions completely spellbinds the audience and the other characters with fantastical stories which would have been ridiculous if delivered by a less capable narrator. One of these tales describes his encounter with a 90-foot giant who claims to have built Stonehenge and gives Byron a drum which he can use to summon the giants of England when in trouble. Byron is a physically broken man (he is a former stuntman) and Rylance plays him beautifully, stiffly moving around the stage. His performance is enthralling from beginning to end and he captures all the contradictions of the character: his rage, glamour and melancholy.

At the beginning of the play, we see one of Byron's allegedly famous parties in full force. The scene, however, is interrupted quickly by the next morning when we see two officials from the county giving Byron notice of his imminent eviction. After they leave, Byron emerges from his trailer to a breakfast of a raw egg, milk, vodka and speed. Soon, he is joined by a team of other characters including a senile retired professor, several teenagers who come out from under his caravan and sofa as well as a few friends who visit him (I thought Mackenzie Crook, from the British Office, as Byron's friend Ginger, is especially memorable). The topic of discussion focuses primarily on the previous night's party and the upcoming St. George's Day fair in the village. The scene is terrifically funny and subversive, as the characters take the piss out of each other and complain about the world.

The beginning of the second act continues in this comic mode but slowly turns more mythological and Shakespearean as Byron's situation becomes more serious. Although he does his best to pretend that the threat of eviction doesn't bother him, there is one scene in which he rallies his gang in a mock revolt against the authorities which shows he is actually haunted by what is to come. At one point when he has been left alone, Byron slips on his glasses to read the eviction notice, a pointed reminder for all his bluster, he is after all a vulnerable man. On top of all this, we also learn that Byron has a son who is being bullied because of his father's gypsy-like lifestyle. But the most dangerous threat to Byron comes from an angry father in search of his missing 15-year-old daughter. She has been known to hang around his caravan with the other teenagers. Byron claims he is oblivious to her whereabouts, but neither the audience or the father quite believe him. Also, the lost girl reminds us that despite his charms, there is something fishy about an aging man who throws parties for young people. Is Byron Jack Falstaff, a charming drunk, or is he something else? Perhaps he is a Peter Pan-type character, perpetually stuck in youthful irresponsibility. Or is he more sinister, like the Pied Piper, seducing the youth of the town to ruin with drugs and easy charm? At the end of the second act, it is revealed that the missing girl has indeed been living in Byron's caravan, but the nature of their relationship is never made clear.

Everything comes to a head in the third and final act. Having been abandoned by all his friends (who we learn earlier betrayed Byron in the cruellest way), Byron is left with just the missing girl. The girl's father, however, arrives to enact vengeance against Byron, beating him to half-death. Bloodied and with the county's bulldozers at the edge of the wood, our main character picks up the drum and begins to heroically beat it, claiming his right to the land by evoking a long list of ancestors and characters from England's pagan past. This scene is extremely powerful and my heartbeat was replaced by Byron's drumbeat. In the ending, we hear several loud thuds and the trees begin to shake: are the giants coming to rescue Byron, or is it simply the noise of the bulldozers coming closer? The stage goes black before we have a chance to see what is actually happening. I choose the former as I suspect most audience members will, although some might think that it is equally likely that Byron is conflating his desire for the giants with the sound of the oncoming bulldozers.


The title of the play reminded me of William Blake's "And did those feet in ancient time", a short poem from the preface to Milton a Poem (1804-1810).

A shorter version of this review appears here

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