entertainment

Jerusalem Review: a 'three-hour, three-act miracle of modern theatre'

Simon Button writes of Mark Rylance's performance: "it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role".

2022-05-03

Words: Simon Button; pictures: Simon Annand

It’s a bit disconcerting walking into the Apollo Theatre and seeing a safety curtain rather than the classroom set for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Ten times over the four years from 2017 to 2021 I was a Jamie fanatic, returning on a professional level to review new leads and supporting cast members and on a personal level because I just couldn’t get enough of such a feel-good show.

With the musical on hiatus after a film adaptation and a UK tour, the Apollo has since hosted Magic Goes Wrong (no thanks) and now welcomes back Jerusalem - Jez Butterworth’s award-laden, rave-reviewed play which was at the West End venue in 2010 after premiering at the Royal Court the previous year and swung back around in late 2011 after wowing Broadway.

I didn’t see it the first or second time around but everybody’s been talking about Jerusalem for the past 13 years and now I know why.

It is, quite simply, staggering. Well, not so simply actually. Butterworth has written a character study that is also a social commentary, a comedy that roars with anger, a foul-mouthed Shakespearean tragedy, and a raucous, rousing entertainment.

At the centre of this three-hour, three-act miracle of modern theatre is a powerhouse performance by Mark Rylance that is so brilliant it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.

Mark Rylance (Photo: Simon Annand)

He’s a character for the ages; a caravan-dwelling drug dealer with a puffed-out chest who is cock of the walk to his friends and customers but a public nuisance to the residents of a nearby estate who want him gone for good.

The action, such as it is, takes place across one St. George’s Day, with Rooster spinning tall stories (meeting the giant who created Stonehenge is one of his many long-winded boasts) much to the amused disbelief of his younger DJ pal Ginger (Mackenzie Crook, brilliantly droll).

Mackenzie Crook (Photo: Simon Annand)

Rooster and his Wiltshire-based band of (very) merry men and women could be seen as pre-Brexiteers, with one character even remarking “I’ve never seen the point of other countries”, but if Butterworth’s script is a celebration of Englishness it is also a satire of it.

And Rylance’s Rooster is full of contradictions. He’s a living, breathing, sweating, swearing, vodka-guzzling nightmare of a neighbour who is also a charismatic yarn-spinner and as soft-hearted as he is hard-shelled.

Left to right: Charlotte O’Leary (Tanya), Mark Rylance (Johnny “Rooster” Byron), Mackenzie Crook (Ginger), Kemi Awoderu (Pea), and Ed Kear (Davey) (Photo: Simon Annand)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor disappear into a role the way Rylance does here and it’s spellbinding to witness. To coin a cliché, he goes on a huge physical and emotional journey throughout those three hours and when Rooster falls to the stage, beaten and bruised, at the end, you’d swear Rylance himself was in severe need of medical attention.

Me, I was in need of a stiff drink.

Rating: 5/5

Jerusalem is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 August. For more information visit jerusalemtheplay.co.uk and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.