Friday, 21 October 2011

Jerusalem *****

Steeped in the forgotten mythology of England and the struggle of the free spirit against an oppressive regime, Jerusalem tells the story of Rooster Byron, a man out of step with the people of the New Estate who want him and his eyesore of a home out of their lives. Naturally, he doesn’t much want to leave. What ensues is nothing short of magical.
For Jerusalem, life began at the Royal Court in 2009 and its run was quickly extended and transferred to the Apollo in 2010 before a run on Broadway in early 2011. Now it has returned again to the Apollo to a fanatical reception and only now have I managed to find an available ticket. Even now it’s playing to a full house on quiet nights. Probing the magic of the woods, it feels like a modern rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, holding the same magical atmosphere, building it steadily until the final ambiguous moment.
Starting at the beginning, the opening itself was marvellous. From the enchanting hymn broken down by the drum and bass exploiting the boundaries of the theatre sound system to the sudden break to silence and the aftermath of the inevitable morning after wasteland. It opened us onto a set of trees and the unsavoury sight of Rooster’s home and surrounding encampment. The set is fantastic, sporting much more than you would expect and with everything having place and detail.
From this slick beginning it continues in a similar vein. The script is highly comical with everything either being a punchline or running up to one without actually being forced. It’s one of those rare funny but natural scripts. The chaotic lives of the teenagers that gather round their debauched idol are carefully orchestrated to appear slick as well as chaotic and are brought to vibrant life by the extensive cast.
There is far more to the script than humour, however. The scenes between Rooster and his son are deeply moving and the relationship he shares with the elusive nymph-like Phaedra is mystical and magical. His stories have the familiar wreak of the bollocks you hear in the pub on a Friday night but his renditions make you pause for thought continually, as if the ancient gods and magical creatures of our green and pleasant land are still roaming free and under the nose of the BBC and only Rooster Byron is familiar with them, such as the giant who claims to have built stonehenge. It’s a masterpiece and has the feel of a script that will remain a masterpiece for years to come, standing the test of time.

Mark Rylance is the perfect person to fill the title role. The strength of the character is overwhelming and the bravado of him and his endless stories are both hilarious and undeniably challenging for the actor playing him. Thankfully, Rylance is more than qualified. His performance is compelling and his absolute commitment to the role gives the show a backbone that justifies everything else. He is the central figure that gives the show the amazing character and atmosphere that it keeps from beginning to end.
Mackenzie Crook does his fair share as well. Seemingly at home in the character of Ginger, he is both incredibly funny throughout as well as troubled and upset when he needs to be. He brings a confidence to the stage that is different to Rylance’s necessary energetic form and the dynamic between the two of them, and indeed between them and the rest of the cast, is lively and engaging.
The rest of the cast slotted into their characters much like one slips into old shoes, relishing every moment and every movement. Charlotte Mills (Tanya), Danny Kirrane (Davey), Alan David (Professor) and Max Baker (Wesley) were the picks of a very strong cast, Max Baker in particular giving a great characterisation to the hypocrisy of the townsfolk that was very funny indeed. My only qualm is with Johnny Flynn, who was also in The Heretic at the Royal Court this year, who, for all his best efforts, just sounds as though he’s reading lines and speaking them as questions, as if asking if he’s getting them right. All efforts were professional, however, and everyone involved with the production can rest knowing that they’ve pulled of what is a fantastic job.
It is a long play. It has one fifteen-minute interval and a five-minute break thereafter bringing the running time up to a respectably Shakespearean three hours. Despite the uncomfortable seats, this was still more of a treat than a curse and every moment was riveting, especially towards the end when the production flaunted its ability to pull off just about everything you could ask from a show and all of it was faultless.
I’m always lauding the belief that perfection in a production lies in balance and this is another perfect example. The balance in the script and in the cast is superb, taking you from raucous laughter to sudden empathy manifesting in silence. Everything has a place and there’s nothing missing, everything ties together and fits. Much credit must be given to Ian Rickson for his talented direction. Every member of the cast were outstanding but Rylance works in a league of his own with Rickson having refined the production to perfection.
It may be long but there’s so much to grab your attention and keep it riveted to the stage that you’ll barely notice time flying by in the real world outside as you’re drawn into a magical world of faeries and nymphs before you realise it. It’s an unmissable production that is giving you every opportunity to see it. Don’t make the mistake of missing it.

Written by Jez Butterworth; Directed by Ian Rickson; At the Apollo Theatre; Starring Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, Max Baker, Alan David, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine Hughes, Danny Kirrane, Sophie McShera, Charlotte Mills; Runs from 8 October 11 - 14 January 12.

John Ord (19/10/2011)

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