By Henry Hitchings
26 July 2009
The word Jerusalem is a peculiarly evocative one for the English. It calls to mind not so much the capital of Israel or the spiritual centre of Judaism as the hymn which has become a surrogate national anthem – a touchstone for rugby fans, Promenaders and the WI.
In Jez Butterworth’s energetic new play William Blake’s vision of “England’s green and pleasant land” is transmuted into a fiesta of bucolic misrule. Set in a wood in an obscure part of Wiltshire on St Georges Day, Jerusalem is a paean to anarchic self-expression. It proudly repudiates the sterility of a world governed by Asbos, health and safety regulations and the micromanagement of pleasure.
The central figure, Johnny Byron, is a former daredevil biker who has become a sort of 21st-century Pied Piper, followed by teenagers and dropouts. Defiantly anti-authoritarian, he’s a mix of feral nuisance and latterday English martyr, barred from every local pub and shacked up with his memories and neuroses. The police are threatening to bulldoze his mobile home, and most of the local community want him gone.
Like the poet whose name he shares, Johnny Byron is mad, bad and dangerous to know. His is a world in which spliffs are “lush”, Class A drugs get raked into lines with a Trivial Pursuit card, and its plausible that someone would pee in an accordion.
Yet amid the narcotic carnage he also proves a curiously heroic figure, majestic despite his many flaws. In the hands of Mark Rylance he is an amoral aphorist, hedonistic sloth, piratical humorist and enthusiastic baiter of the “sausage-fingered constabulary”. He may be grubby and dishevelled, but intermittently he is Napoleonic.
Rylance has first-rate support. Mackenzie Crook excels as Johnny Byron’s almost wifely sidekick Ginger, and Tom Brooke as a young man whose faraway stare betrays a life given over to late nights and contraband substances.
Director Ian Rickson has skilfully marshalled the plays chaos; the production feels careful even in its occasional flights of carelessness. The set, by Ultz, is wonderfully detailed and atmospheric. Tall trees preside over a raunchily primitive chaos, intelligently lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin.
There are evident weaknesses in Butterworth’s text. After an explosive beginning the action meanders, especially in the second of the three acts. The story is thin. It’s also too long.
Yet it hardly seems to matter. Besides moments of gut-busting humour, the play is lit up by a profane intelligence that zeroes in on the pedantry of the nanny state.
And, in Johnny Byron, Butterworth has created a thrilling role. Rylance’s is an astonishing performance, which confirms that he is one of our finest stage actors.Back to reviews