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Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre

Jerusalem, Apollo Theatre

Mark Rylance reprises his stellar performance in Jez Butterworth's multiple award-winning play

Alan David (left) as The Professor and Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in 'Jerusalem'Photo Simon Annand

So it's back, then. Garlanded with awards, lionised in London and on Broadway, Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance returns to the West End for a limited run, in the same production and with many members of the earlier cast(s). Is this an opportunistic, irrelevant, premature revival? On the contrary.

First produced at the Royal Court in 2009, the new Jerusalem appears to have been lightly dusted with a top-dressing of topical references but, in an England that's even greyer and more unpleasant than it was two years ago, the play barely needs touching up to retain its urgency.

There's a big, bawdy braggadocio to the early scenes - the first act, with its expertly managed running jokes, gets the evening off to a roaring start

To remind you: the action is set on one day - St George's Day, 23 April - and in one place, an old metal caravan in a forest in Wiltshire inhabited by Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a charismatic ne'er-do-well for whom life, at first, seems a 24/7 party. The narrative revolves around the contrast between the faux-folkloric local festival (which takes place off stage), with its Morris dancing, May Queens and tawdry sideshows, and the brutal, amoral, animistic life force emanating from Byron and the raves-cum-orgies he stages at his beaten-up chariot of fire. "What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?" he protests, not unreasonably, by way of explanation.

Byron, whose rackety niche is about to be crushed by building developers and shirty neighbours, is a deeply ambiguous character. You applaud him knowingly as he argues that 15-year-olds are destined for drink, drugs and underage sex, and that it was ever thus, while at the same time deploring him. He's a folk hero with an aura of tragedy to him and there's a great melancholy to the final scenes, as he pushes away those who insist on loving him, retreating into a vision of communion with some imagined ancient spirits.

Sporting an array of extraordinary headgear, reeling around the stage with a strutting, lurching limp, Mark Rylance lends the character a hyper-charged presence - he plays one key scene near the end with his bare back facing the audience and you register his tension in every ripple. Reviews of Jerusalem in its previous incarnations have fastened on this astonishing central performance, and I did wonder whether, like Rylance's rancid, logorrhoeic Valere in last year's La Bête, this was going to be another stellar turn in a lacklustre firmament.

Jerusalem Mackenzie CrookNo need: Jez Butterworth's writing in Jerusalem is rich and broad-ranging, and the supporting characters (Mackenzie Crook, pictured right, and Max Baker shine among an excellent cast) are given their chance to assert themselves in the glare of attention. There's a big, bawdy Falstaffian braggadocio to the early scenes - the first act, with its expertly managed running jokes, gets the evening off to a roaring start. But, as the mood darkens, the spirit of Chekhov hovers over the realisation that everyone is quietly living his or her own small disillusion. The play touches on the loss of one's roots and the sadness of relinquishing the past, while at the same time acknowledging that change is inevitable. 

Still, Rylance, and Byron, have dominated every production to date and the question does remain: how can another actor step into his shoes? In the meantime, make sure to catch this exceptional performance.
    •    Jerusalem is at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until 14 January, 2012

Rylance has dominated every production to date and the question does remain: how can another actor step into his shoes?


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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