The drop curtain feels like a provocation. A St George’s Cross stands at least 30 feet tall almost the size of the giants that, we will learn, once walked this green and pleasant land. In front of it, a girl dressed as a fairy trills “Jerusalem”, and the curtain rises once more on Jez Butterworth’s three-hour epic about Englishness, no less, that most unfashionable thing. When it first appeared 13 years ago, it earned such epithets as “instant modern classic”, “turning point in contemporary theatre”, and “greatest play of the century”. Makes you proud to be English, don’t it?
I’m not about to stick my head above the parapet: Jerusalem is a masterpiece – stirring, seductive, slick as the shoe-polish hair on its star Mark Rylance’s head. It returns to the West End with the same leads (Rylance and Mackenzie Crook), the same director (Ian Rickson), and the same design and creative team. So perhaps inevitably, Jerusalem does not feel as radical as it did in 2009, but its relevance is enduring: the myth goes that this state-of-the-nation play about a neglected rural community anticipated what was stirring – first the Tories, then the Brexit-age eruption.
Sure, if you like. But what does that make it today? An artefact? A howl from the past? Or an easy way to get bums on seats? No, this ambiguous show regenerates, takes on new meaning. It’s a play about the nation, but the audience can decide its state. Where once its anti-hero spoke for England’s left-behind, today he seems to embody the whole country. Isolated, and convinced of his exceptionalism, this ageing man boasts of his ancient blood and gets misty-eyed about English mythology.
Butterworth has remarked how, when finishing the script in 2009, he felt he was somewhere between “grace and madness” – a line that captures spirit of the play itself. It is set on St George’s day, in the woodland of Shakespearean tradition – a dappled copse above the sacred ley lines of Wiltshire that contains all the light and dark of a vainglorious nation.
There lives Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Rylance) – dealer, daredevil, layabout liar, father figure, Romany and owner of many silly hats – who begins, full-pantomime, by doing a headstand over a water trough and downing a cocktail of raw egg (fresh, there are live hens on stage) at speed. A Falstaffian fabulist, he dishes out tall tales – did you hear about the time he met a giant on the A14? – and drugs to all who gather, intoxicating the teenage waifs and strays who loiter around his trailer. This mobile home shimmers, steely as medieval armour, like a beacon of resistance, but not, perhaps, for long: as the annual village fair rumbles in the distance, Byron awaits the coming storm, in the form of the pen-pushers at Kennet and Avon council, poised to evict him to make way for a new housing estate. Not In Mr Byron’s Yard; at least, not without a reckoning.
The stage, lit up in green and gold and sandwiched by trees, is littered with empty cans and a large, spritely cast of characters, including an overweight slaughterman (Ed Kear), a Morris-dancing publican (Gerard Horan) and a “whizz head” called Lee (an energising, endearing performance by Jack Riddiford). Rolling cigs and shifting in his Slazengers, Crook is a safe pair of hands as unemployed plasterer – sorry, aspiring DJ – Ginger, though I wonder if he isn’t too old for the role now; no longer in his thirties, he’s too much a rival father figure to Bryon, not enough the hapless Peter Pan.
Pop culture references have been updated, but it’s a shame the female characters have not; they’re still too underwritten and giggly, save a stand-out appearance from Indra Ové as Dawn, the mother of the child Byron long ago abandoned. Withering, with just the right amount of worn-down, she makes it almost conceivable her character could still be seduced by that grim, selfish, spiritual man, lolling maggot-like on the sofa.
Rylance is transformed: a bulked-up boxer up top, he’s all rooster on the bottom; bum out, spine curved like a sickle, dragging his lame leg behind him. It’s back-breaking work, but never once detracts from all the boisterousness and bombast: shuffling around, Rylance scales the unruly registers of the dialogue-heavy script – try soliloquising about shagging the Spice Girls! – with a kind of easy majesty. In a deep Wiltshire burr, he draws out the gentleness of Rooster’s rogue, inspiring that potent mix of pity and revulsion. His is a soft authority, which only adds to the eeriness of the discovery that the village May Queen – a girl of 15 – has gone missing, and that the wretch in the woods might have something to do with it.
Rylance, under Rickson’s clean direction, is the conductor of this well-paced piece, which blends carnival and calm as it throbs towards the closing scene. Surrounded by an army of police and attacked by local thugs, Byron stands drenched in sweat, blood and emerald light. Banging a drum, he starts incanting, summoning the spirit of his forebears to his defence. He pounds and pounds insistently, dust rising from its surface like a smoke flare out at sea. It is an unforgettable moment, a vision of trance-like ecstasy. That beaten, bloodied man, lonely as an island, caught between a state of grace and madness.
Jerusalem runs at London’s Apollo Theatre until 7 August 2022.