Jez Butterworth's epic new play Jerusalem, billed as a “comic, contemporary vision of life in our green and pleasant land”, opened to critics at the Royal Court last night (16 July, previews from 10 July), with Ian Rickson directing a company led by former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance and star of The Office and Pirates of the Caribbean Mackenzie Crook.
Crook plays Ginger, friend and partner-in-crime of Johnny Byron (Rylance), who is a limping, caravan-dwelling ex-stuntman and all-round village rogue and modern-day Pied Piper. It’s St George's Day, the morning of the local county fair, and Johnny is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his children want their dad to take them to the fair, Troy Whitworth wants to give him a serious kicking and a motley crew of mates want his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.
Jerusalem is designed by Ultz, with sound by Ian Dickinson and music composed by Stephen Warbeck, continuing its limited run to 15 August 2009.
Described variously as a “feast of British character acting”, “startlingly brilliant” and “one of the must-see events of the summer”, suffice to say Jerusalem can be counted a palpable hit with the overnight critics. With a running time of over three hours (including two intervals), Butterworth's epic comedy was described by Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney as “an alternative state-of-the-nation play”, and by The Times' Benedict Nightingale as a “state-of-Olde-England play”. But differing definitions aside, they and the rest of the critical vanguard were united by their appreciation of the “ribald humour” Rickson's “superb” direction and the “beautiful” acting of the company. The “effortlessly charismatic“ Mark Rylance wasn't so much showered as drenched in praise, while Mackenzie Crook and Tom Brooke were singled out among the “first-rate support”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Jez Butterworth’s new play Jerusalem, superbly directed by Ian Rickson, atmospherically designed by Ultz in a great forest of beech trees, is a wonderfully vivid three-act alternative state-of-the-nation play - running at well over three hours with two intervals - that plugs into urban myths and rural legends with an epic sense of the mystery of life in dull times … Mark Rylance embarks on the rollercoaster ride of his performance as a mischievous wild man, brimful of stories, banned from every pub in the neighbourhood, including the one run by Gerard Horan’s hangdog landlord who has been roped into the festivities as a Morris dancer; he’s only allowed his three grams of 'whizz' after giving a dejected display … Other regulars at Rooster’s include Mackenzie Crook’s dilapidated ex-plasterer Ginger, with ideas of being a deejay; Tom Brooke’s wild-eyed Lee who emerges disoriented from inside an old sofa having burnt all his things and bought a one-way ticket to Australia; and a pair of teenage girls played with forward insouciance by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Mills … It’s a glorious evening, a feast of British character acting at its very best, led by Rooster Rylance at the top of his game.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “A green and pleasant land at the Royal Court? You must be joking … In a play blessed with what I suspect will prove an award-winning performance by the great Mark Rylance, the dramatist shows that matters can turn every bit as nasty in the countryside … But though there are several of the Royal Court's trademark 'in your face' shock tactics and an exceptionally high swear word count even by the exacting standards of the address, this rich three-hour play is also tender, touching, and blessed with both a ribald humour and a haunting sense of the mystery of things … The effortlessly charismatic Rylance also has scenes when he tells magical stories and seems endowed with mystic powers, others when he appears suddenly menacing … And in scenes with his six-year-old son, he conjures a mixture of tenderness and terrible loneliness that is almost too painful to watch … The carping might complain that this is a baggy, untidy play. I'd say that it is rich, strange and continuously gripping, and Ian Rickson's beautifully acted production, with a superb woodland design by Ultz, is one of the must-see events of the summer.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) “From the start, in which a fairy appears beneath a tacky English flag to recite Blake’s Jerusalem, you know that he’s worried about what the bureaucrats, the lookalike housing estates and, not least, the confused and alienated country people themselves are doing to our pleasant pastures and mountains green … His Jerusalem is a bold, ebullient and often hilarious State-of-England or (almost) State-of-Olde-England play. At the stage’s centre is an American-style trailer, surrounded by discarded furniture and trees, and at the evening’s centre is its inhabitant. Mark Rylance’s Rooster Byron is an anarchic maverick, a Wiltshire lord of misrule, mythologised by his shambolic retinue of underage girls and male layabouts, among them Mackenzie Crook as a forlorn, gangling loser called Ginger. No, Rooster didn’t manage to jump Stonehenge on a motorbike, but he tells a tall story, fights a wild fight, and has stuck up two fingers at authority for aeons.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) “In Jez Butterworth’s energetic new play William Blake’s vision of 'England’s green and pleasant land' is transmuted into a fiesta of bucolic misrule. Set in a wood in an obscure part of Wiltshire on St George’s Day, Jerusalem is a paean to anarchic self-expression. It proudly repudiates the sterility of a world governed by Asbos, health and safety regulations and the micromanagement of pleasure ... Like the poet whose name he shares, Johnny Byron is mad, bad and dangerous to know … Yet amid the narcotic carnage he also proves a curiously heroic figure, majestic despite his many flaws. In the hands of Mark Rylance he is an amoral aphorist, hedonistic sloth, piratical humorist and enthusiastic baiter of the 'sausage-fingered constabulary'. He may be grubby and dishevelled, but intermittently he is Napoleonic … Rylance has first-rate support. Mackenzie Crook excels as Johnny Byron’s almost wifely sidekick Ginger, and Tom Brooke as a young man whose faraway stare betrays a life given over to late nights and contraband substances … Besides moments of gut-busting humour, the play is lit up by a profane intelligence that zeroes in on the pedantry of the nanny state. And, in Johnny Byron, Butterworth has created a thrilling role. Rylance’s is an astonishing performance, which confirms that he is one of our finest stage actors.”
Ben Dowell in thelondonpaper (five stars) “Jez Butterworth's startlingly brilliant new play is a tragic and hilarious vision of life in an English country community … Office star Mackenzie Crook’s loyal Ginger and Tom Brooke’s dreamer Lee are particularly impressive as Byron’s comrades, larger-than-life but carrying an authentic ring of druggie boredom and deprivation amid the grot of this brilliantly-realized glade … And whether Byron is a modern day Bottom leading an anarchic carnival, or a troubled loser harbouring teenage girls, he is somehow redeemed by his evocation (however heartfelt or otherwise) of mythical giants and gypsy Kings … Because behind the can-strewn turf and some bellyachingly good comic set pieces, his personality and myth-making motors a profoundly rich and complex story of England and the English, how we treat the land and our place in its myths and landscape.”
- Theo Bosanquet & Ashley Alexander