By Charles Spencer
16 July 2009
Over the years the Royal Court has often concentrated on desperate lives in gritty urban environments, offering plays packed with fear, loathing, sex, violence and degradation.
So Jez Butterworth’s new drama initially seems like a welcome blast of bracing fresh air. It’s St Georges Day, the action is set in an ancient wood in deepest Wiltshire, birds are chirping, and a girl dressed as a fairy sings Jerusalem.
A green and pleasant land at the Royal Court? You must be joking.
In a play blessed with what I suspect will prove an award-winning performance by the great Mark Rylance, the dramatist shows that matters can turn every bit as nasty in the countryside.
But though there are several of the Royal Court’s trademark “in your face” shock tactics and an exceptionally high swear word count even by the exacting standards of the address, this rich three-hour play is also tender, touching, and blessed with both a ribald humour and a haunting sense of the mystery of things.
The moods keep shifting, and right to the end you are never quite sure whether you are watching a rambunctious comedy or a terrible tragedy in the making.
Rylance plays Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a Romany ne’er-do-well who for years has lived in a mobile home in the wood.
Once, he was a motorcycle stunt rider; now, he has become a tattooed Pied Piper, attracting local children who come to him to score drugs, drink and dance at wild parties.
But the local authority is threatening him with eviction, and a local girl has gone missing. Is Rooster a basically benevolent old rogue, as he appears, or something far more sinister?
Butterworth and Rylance keep us guessing to the end. For much of the evening Rylance is wonderfully funny, never more so than when, heavily hung-over, he prepares a breakfast of stale milk, a raw egg, several shots of vodka and a wrap of speed and somehow gets it down in one.
And his relations with the locals most notably Mackenzie Crook as a sad and creepy hanger-on; Tom Brooke as a delightfully gormless child heading for Australia; and Alan David as an elderly local eccentric are full of laugh-out-loud humour.
But the effortlessly charismatic Rylance also has scenes when he tells magical stories and seems endowed with mystic powers, others when he appears suddenly menacing.
And in scenes with his six-year-old son, he conjures a mixture of tenderness and terrible loneliness that is almost too painful to watch.
The carping might complain that this is a baggy, untidy play. I’d say that it is rich, strange and continuously gripping, and Ian Rickson’s beautifully acted production, with a superb woodland design by Ultz, is one of the must-see events of the summer.Back to reviews