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This unmissable state-of-the-nation piece is a fantasy tale with echoes of Blake

If you read only one sentence of this review let it be the next. Do not miss Jerusalem. Jez Butterworth's new play is not only an excellent, unexpected state-of-the nation piece that takes a necessary CT scan of the English character, it is also fantastically entertaining theatre: funny, moving, beautifully staged and lit and with outstanding character acting around an extraordinary central performance by Mark Rylance. It is wise yet unpompous, lyrical yet down to earth, and could not be more English. Although Blake's presence flits through the trees of the Wiltshire copse in which it is set, Jerusalem the play embodies England better even than "Jerusalem" the hymn.

In a mobile home in a clearing in a Wiltshire wood lives the former daredevil cyclist-turned-drug dealer called Johnny "Rooster" Byron. Following protests from the new estate that borders his wood, enforcement officers from Kennet and Avon arrive to get him out on the day of the local carnival. Bryon's response - "Now kiss my beggar arse, you puritans" - sets the play up as a new battle in the eternal English civil war between Roundheads and Cavaliers.

But English woodland, as Lysander and Hermia found, is a magical, transformative place and Byron is a kind of wizard, even rumoured to have resurrected himself after death following a particularly incautious bike stunt. From beneath the van, refugees from the village appear as if by magic, never having made it home from the previous night's party.

A publican arrives dressed as a Morris dancer, a runaway teenager becomes a wood nymph (in wings presumably bought from Toys R Us). This is no place for sensible clothes and the items in Byron's wardrobe range from Bismarck to werewolf. Mackenzie Crook, who brilliantly plays Ginger, the oldest of Byron's lost boys, dresses - appropriately, given his film work - as a pirate. The fancy dress helps, but most of the transforming is done in the old-fashioned way, through booze, drugs and the oblivion they engender.

Byron's dominance over his rough gang is nevertheless primarily verbal. He is the best storyteller you have ever heard. A monologue about meeting
the giant who built Stonehenge ("That's if you believe him. It could be bullshit . . . [But] I don't suppose there's any reason for him to make something like that up") may become an audition-piece standard and is also central to the play. The giant left Byron a drum. Should he beat it in direst emergency, the giants of Old England will come to his aid. Ginger, the literalist, scoffs, but is not willing to beat the drum just in case.

Rylance's Byron is charismatic, but this is not a sentimental portrait. It is not just the council after him. He has fathered a boy in the village and his mother exposes him as a dud dad. Even at his most serious, he cannot stop himself selling the boy fantasies. The shadow of a rumour of paedophilia falls upon him and prompts the villagers' wrath. Even his loyal gang once urinated on him while he was unconscious and photographedhis humiliation. We English have long simultaneously envied and despised such outsiders: in the intolerant 21st century, despising is gaining the upper hand. The crash of ancient feet upon England's mountains green at the end may be the giants or the ineluctable forces of progress.

Crook, Alan David as a befuddled faux professor, Gerard Horan as the publican and Danny Kirrane as the abattoir worker whose ears pop when he leaves Wiltshire are all terrific, but it is a great act of generosity by Rylance not to take a solo bow at the end of the evening. His Byron deserves to join the great indelibles of the English stage, up there with Archie Rice and Lady Bracknell.

I did not expect to be writing any of this when I arrived at the Royal Court and discovered that Jerusalem's running time was three hours ten, but Ian Rickson directs with pace - and the confidence to slow the pace when necessary. If there is one standout reason for the play's success, however, it is that Butterworth's dialogue, although elevated, speaks directly to the contemporary ear in a voice that appears to come from specific, known streets, and not a theatre tradition, or writing classes, or soap opera. It is a voice happy to elide Blake with Lord of the Rings, Jack and the Beanstalk with ley lines, BBC: Points West with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Work like this, and characters such as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, do not come along every decade. Please do not miss either.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right