“And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green…” The first words of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, set in the fictional town of Flintock, Wiltshire on the day of its annual fair, borrow audaciously from Blake.
Watching the play’s first professional revival since it stormed from the Royal Court in 2009 to the West End a year later (and then to Broadway), more recent foot-steps come to mind: those of that acting giant Mark Rylance, who created the role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. So winningly did Rylance bring this Falstaffian anti-hero to reprobate life that he attained the status of a theatrical messiah.
The fittingly bucolic Watermill has good cause to crow as the first regional theatre to get its mitts on this modern classic but how do you follow that Olivier-winning turn? Even in such an intimate space, the pressure is on.
Rylance excelled at an otherworldly charm; Britton’s approach is more tramp-next-door – chain-smoking, booze-raddled – mainly downbeat then madly growling. Just as Lisa Blair’s revival argues the case for the play having renewed topicality as house-building (and rural drug-dealing) sweeps the nation, so Britton forces you to see the character afresh as a figure of inspiriting symbolic force and real-life poignancy: a yarn-spinning misfit who invites disdain (even disgust) and yet also covert, needy admiration from those who gather round him – most touchingly, his estranged six-year-old son.
The superb ensemble, meanwhile, make the bravura dialogue sound as revitalising as ever and you’re going to have to fight your way in to get a seat. Let’s hope the play now stays in the repertoire on a more regular basis. Lush.
It takes courage to revive a play that was deemed by so many to be the best British stage production of modern times. And even more courage for a lead actor to risk comparison with the original star, Mark Rylance, who won an Olivier and a Tony for his role in it. So the Watermill shows daring in its staging of Jerusalem, which had a sensational run at the Royal Court in 2009 followed by the West End, twice, as well as Broadway.
If Jez Butterworth’s play exposes the grim realities of rural life and pierces the idealised vision of an Albion idyll, director Lisa Blair here flags up its relevance to Brexit Britain. This is the troubled English countryside many did not acknowledge before the referendum, variously neglected or oppressed by bureaucracy, and in which Old England’s feudal landlords have been replaced by council officials driving non-taxpayer and refusenik Johnny “Rooster” Byron off the land.
Teenagers from the Wiltshire estates who tramp up to the woods for Rooster’s all-night raves and “whizz” are the “Friends, outcasts and leeches,” of his Mark Antony-like address. They want to haul up the borders: “I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop”, says one who never wants to leave home.
The Watermill’s rural Berkshire location is certainly a better fit than a city for a play that engages with the notion of a lost pastoral. The set is dominated by a caravan and a beaten-up sofa with bottles of booze, much like the original. But the intimacy of the space makes the woodland more vivid and darkly oppressive, bringing an anarchic element to the staging: the audience is sprayed with water, cigarette smoke wafts into the stalls, the thump of rave music shakes the ground beneath our feet.
Jasper Britton does not – thankfully – channel Rylance but goes his own way. His Rooster is a slurring, red-faced, black-fingernailed Hell’s Angel of sorts in leathers. In moments of self-mythologising, he sounds like a pub raconteur rather than the mesmeriser that Rylance became when speaking of coming back from the dead, of talking to giants, of having blood that could never rot in the earth, and this has its own charms.
Britton inhabits his dramatic monologues with greater intensity as he goes along. The comedy carries a similar momentum, waning at times, brilliant in others. Peter Caulfield plays Ginger with fantastic physical comedy while Richard Evans’s absent-minded Professor delivers the poetic whimsy in his lines like a Shakespearean fool.
There are bursts of real spectacle and flared intensity – the powerful opening scene with Phaedra, a New-Age raver, singing the lines of the hymn Jerusalem, which segues into the sounds of a rave when she gets to the “dark Satanic mills”; and Rooster’s bloodied curse on the land in the final scene, though there might have been more of these high-fever moments.
As it is, the play – more than three hours long and fairly static – sometimes feels its length. Yet its message – and delivery for the most part – is made new. Just as Butterworth’s The Ferryman plays with a mystical notion of Ireland, so Jerusalem reveals a yearning for a bygone Britain that never existed – a once magnificent “Holy Land” of fairies, Arthurian legends and Stonehenge giants. The reminder could not be more relevant.
Review: Jerusalem (Watermill)
The Watermill theatre in Newbury revives Jez Butterworth’s superb play with Jasper Britton in the lead role of Rooster Byron
Rating: 5out of 5 stars