It’s back and it’s better than ever. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is deservedly sweeping the best play awards, and Ian Rickson’s brilliant production with Mark Rylance’s majestic performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron at its centre gives the West End its finest new play for some time.
So we have a choice on Shaftesbury Avenue between the call of the wild and the tragedy of capitalism in Enron: it’s a wonderful dilemma, but with Jerusalem you feel something deep and atavistic is being unleashed in this woodland retreat in the heart of a Wiltshire forest on St George’s Day.

Jerusalem is a beggar’s banquet, a feast of fools, an awakening of old legends, as Johnny and his tribe bemoan the encroachment of the housing estate, the cheapening of the fairground revels, the banning of bad behaviour and the officialdom of the Kennet and Avon constabulary who are serving an eviction order on Johnny’s metallic caravan and coke-head copse.

Set over 24 hours, Johnny and his crew – including Mackenzie Crook’s dazed, delirious deejay, Alan David’s nostalgic professor, Tom Brooke’s moon-faced dope head and Danny Kirrane’s hilarious plump xenophobe – trade stories without losing the dynamic of the drama.

The Royal Court cast is intact, save for the re-casting of Johnny’s ex-wife, Dawn, whom Amy Beth Hayes now invests with even more spirit and poignancy (despite corpsing badly on last preview). The young girls are great, too, though Jessica Barden needs to improve her audibility.

The Shakespearean anti-hero provides Rylance with his greatest ever modern role, a wounded warrior of the woods with elements of Falstaff, Jack Cade and, in the last act, one of Richard Widmark’s hunted, haunted hoodlums.

He rises to the challenge magnificently. This is now one of the great performances of our time: sly, funny, reprehensible, big-hearted, barrel-chested, technically awesome and physically monumental.

The play is rich, long, full of great speeches and crude incident, rollicking Chaucerian language, set in an enclave of towering beech trees designed by Ultz and bathed in a golden light by Mimi Jordan Sherin (though the passage of the day is not strictly observed) while the beating of the drums merges with the stomping of the gods, the jangling feet of the Morris dancers and the distant echoes of a country fair on a distant day like today. You’ll be astonished and overjoyed to find this in the West End.

– Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from 7 July 2009, and this production’s premiere at the Royal Court

It’s St George’s Day in the heart of the forest, and the Queen of the May, a tentative teenager in fairy wings, sings William Blake’s famous anthem; we’ll hear the drumming of those feet in ancient time before long, and loudly, too, at the end of the evening.

The Flintock county fair is in full swing, and the community liaison officers of Kennet and Avon council are serving an eviction order on Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a spaced out middle-aged middle earth tramp, a Wiltshire Robin Hood living in a mobile home surrounded by wastrels.

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.

Rooster is railing against the new estate, but he also knows that the houses will need re-painting before too long. He greets the new day – we’ve had a brief burst of the wild party night preceding it – by mixing what is obviously his habitual hair of the dog: milk and a raw egg laced with vodka and spiced with a sachet of speed.

Thus 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.

Butterworth’s deal is that we’ve lost something of our souls in the process of civilisation and the onward march of morality, and in one brilliant scene with his former partner Dawn (Lucy Montgomery) and their six-year-old son (Lenny Harvey), you smell the price Rooster’s paid for the liberty he pursues. 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.