Returning to the Apollo Theatre for a limited run after its massive transatlantic success, this is possibly the final chance to see Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron and I think it's time to sell granny to get a ticket.
Rylance is an actor at the peak of his prowess, a quivering, swaggering behemoth. In Byron Butterworth has created for him a modern English folk legend; a protector of maidens, confessor of undesirables, Pied Piper of good hearted children and indifferent rats, this Gypsy King is as wild and dark as the woods that protect him.
Today is St George's Day and the last day Byron has left before he is evicted from the woods that bear his name by an officious Council and rather more painfully, a disgruntled community.
As we hear the strands of a local county fair down the hill, a May Queen goes missing and Byron's motley crew swirl around him; Ginger (Mackenzie Crook) the perennial underdog, Lee (Johnny Flynn) leaving for Australia at dawn the next day, Davey (Danny Kirrane) slaughterer of 200 cows, good time gals Pea and Tanya (Sophie McShera and Charlotte Mills) and The Professor (Alan David), a whimsical pronouncer of Arthurian legends. Trainers and hoodies aside, this lot could be Oberon's faeries; they are as playful, kind and cruel.
A St George's Cross smiles benignly down on their revels and a canopy of trees forms a thick backdrop. England's green and pleasant land is a silent partner in this tale of an old dare devil hamstrung by laws that seek to neutralise him. Butterworth links Byron to his environment viscerally, just what is in his pitch black stare that makes people tremble? It feels like it comes from beneath and within him.
Underpinning this poetry there is a violence and brutishness to Jerusalem and a hell of a lot of humour. Butterworth's bang up-to-date references to Girls Aloud and the Middleton sisters place this world firmly within the England we now inhabit. Ian Rickson's rich and finely tuned production is a roller coaster that will have you guffawing one minute and gasping the next.
Rylance fuses all this into an electric multifaceted man. Both charming teller of tales and supplier of drugs to children, his Byron embodies these and many more contradictions, his bluster and wit hiding a deep seated and inconsolable sadness and anger. It is a towering performance; at the end as he calls on his ancestors, pounding a drum to summon giants, one feels the very foundations of the Apollo Theatre might break.
- Honour Bayes