overed in blood, myth and glory, Mark Rylance returns in triumph, 13 years on, to the career-defining role of Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s dazzling exploration of Englishness. Rooster is a charismatic, anarchic spirit: a perma-drunk yarn-spinner who supplies drugs and dance music to teenagers at his woodland caravan in Wiltshire. If anything, age has deepened the grain of Rylance’s overwhelming performance. And the questions Butterworth asked about national identity back in 2009 have only become more urgent.
There’s just so much in this magnificently profligate, three-hour epic, which can shift from sublime comedy to high drama in a heartbeat. It touches on folklore and religion, community and exclusion, land and ownership, sex and the great British tradition of underage drinking. Butterworth said recently that the play is about “wanting to stay but knowing you have to leave” – in other words, life and death.
He smuggles profound truths into witty dialogue. Rooster claims to have met a giant who built Stonehenge: the hilarious ensuing discussion on whether BBC Points West would have noticed the colossus is an oblique commentary on the ironing out of local differences and the homogenization of culture. The exchange between Jack Riddiford’s wrung-out Lee, heading to Australia, and cheerful slaughterman Davey (Ed Kear), who wants to stay put, get pissed and kill cows, analyses the perceived divide between citizens of somewhere and citizens of nowhere. It’s the leave vs remain debate turned upside down.
There’s also a freewheeling delight in language and storytelling throughout, Byron unspooling tall tales about his being born complete with a cloak, a dagger and a bullet between his fully-formed teeth, or being kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens in Marlborough. In one early scene Rylance and a hangdog Mackenzie Crook – returning to the role of wannabe DJ Ginger, all the more sad now for being middle aged – delightedly bat the word “fracas” around like a shuttlecock.
Director Ian Rickson is again at the helm, in control but giving the narrative room to roam, and designer ULTZ pretty much replicates his original set of a decaying Airstream trailer becalmed between trees, with live chickens roosting underneath. Rooster still kicks off the show with a headstand in a water trough before knocking back a raw egg mixed with milk, vodka and speed.
I thought Butterworth might have boosted the roles of the three young female characters this time round, but no: they remain funny but essentially functional, representative of the way girls’ sexuality has historically been fetishized. It’s still quite a blokey play, although Rylance used a curtain call speech to praise producer Sonia Friedman and theatre owner Nica Burns, alongside Butterworth and the creative team. The one major, welcome difference is that the cast isn’t entirely white this time round.
Does Jerusalem deserve this revival? Unquestionably, yes. You could watch this play, and Rylance’s performance, every night of the too-short run and still find new dimensions to wonder at. Well, you can’t, because it’s sold out. But Rylance, now 62, has said he wants to play Rooster again at 70 and at 80. I hope I’m around to see it.
To Aug 7, jerusalemtheplay.co.uk