Rooster booster

Pretty much the whole of Jerusalem is in some way “problematic”, which is why people relish it

On Theatre

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was first staged in 2009, in the acid reflux of the post-financial crash era and the hangover of the Blair era’s unfulfilled promise. Its themes of dysfunctional Englishness twirl around the maypole of its protagonist, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, who channels mysticism, bloody-mindedness, artfulness and delusion across a riveting three hours at London’s Apollo Theatre.

Byron (Mark Rylance) resides in easeful squalor in an old Airstream caravan in the woods outside the village of Flintock in west Wiltshire, dealing “whizz” (amphetamines) and on the verge of eviction by clipboard-wielders at Kennet and Avon council. After being officiously “informed” of his imminent ousting, the response blares back through the loudspeaker on top of the caravan: “This is Rooster Byron’s dog, Shep, informing Kennet and Avon council to go fuck itself.”

The tension between old and new, ordered and spontaneous ways of life and the muddled, endearing complexity of Englishness is at the heart of Jerusalem, with its Byronic echoes of a quest for the modern future in the ancient past.

Rooster, like the poet Byron, or St George in his sundry iterations, is contradictory and slippery. His nose-thumbing at authority is that of the individual who distrusts conformity and separates himself from society. Yet he also fits into a kind of leftist counter-culture unconcerned about (sexual) fidelity, hedonistic and aloof from the strictures of capitalism.

The star of the show is now 62, but we still meet his character enjoying a hangover cure of raw egg, milk and vodka (the shells tossed nonchalantly into the audience). The only sign of advancing years is that Rylance performs his cleansing headstand on a water trough instead of the original bucket. If this is ageing gracefully, give me more of whatever he’s having.

The star of the show is now 62, but we still meet his character enjoying a hangover cure of raw egg, milk and vodka

Mordant Mackenzie Crook returns as angsty sidekick Ginger, chiding Rooster for trouble looming after one of his nights at the local. “Jaegerbomb. Jaegerbomb. Jaegerbomb. Fracas.” Few actors can channel male fragility under the cloak of swagger as well as Crook (think of his turn as Territorial Army-bore Gareth in The Office). Crook’s presentation has a stronger sense of dashed hopes at ever understudying the “Two Trevs” as DJ down at The Cooper’s rave and more wistfulness in his Vladimir and Estragon interdependency with Johnny.

The vast vertical foliage set by Ultz and shabby charm of Johnny’s surroundings are a visual treat and backdrop for an ensemble piece with bright cameos galore, from Gerard Horan’s grumpy publican, forced into Morris dancing to drum up Mayday trade, to Davey (Ed Kear) the dim abattoir worker who “can’t see the point of abroad” and Lee (Jack Riddiford), trying to escape, in a Godot-like way, to Australia and always ending up outside Rooster’s squat.

It’s also mainly a play about men, apart from a despairing turn by Johnny’s ex, Dawn (Indra Ové), who vainly hopes that he will embrace his duties as a father and ethereal, troubled songbird May Queen (Eleanor Worthington Cox). Her forest flight from an abusive stepfather drives the story to a violent conclusion.

Occasionally, Jerusalem can be glib, and this does feel a bit too much like a sideline for such a serious topic. Some objections have been aired over one of Rooster’s memorable tall tales, in which he recalls been held kidnapped by “Nigerian parking attendants”, which led to a marvellously prim Guardian header about the play’s “problematic gags”.

At some point, the script will need to update references like Johnny’s recollection of an orgy with the Spice Girls

Pretty much the whole of this story is in some way “problematic”, which is precisely why audiences will relish returning to it and new ones will enjoy its wildness. Anyway, would a Rooster character ever really couch his yarns in “people of colour” or “British-born” phrasings? Butterworth and Rylance (who is, ironically an unrepentant Corbynite collectivist in real life), have done the right thing by sticking to gutsy, often objectionable invective, true to the language of the people it is describing.

At some point, the script will need to update references like Johnny’s recollection of an orgy with the Spice Girls — “all of them, even the ginger one”, Chumbawamba (a rock band) and the fancy-dress night at The Cooper’s pub, where most of the village men turn up as Osama bin Laden. But this revival feels like a tribute to the greatest success of contemporary writing in the past two decades, so some tolerance of anachronisms is justified.

Ian Rickson’s direction makes changes for pace and places less emphasis on the mystical power of summoning the spirits of giants on a junk-store drum. The ending is a bit less powerful than it might be: a small imperfection.

In truth, Jerusalem does not merely “foreshadow Brexit” as so many reviews insist. It’s a far richer play than a parable of the “left behinds” — a meditation on belonging and the oddities of ordinary folk: characterful, foolish, self-defeating, on the edge of prosperity all around us.

When raw thuggery intervenes in the savage beating of Johnny by Troy, a frisson of real evil descends in this modern forest of Arden. Butterworth’s England is green but not always pleasant. And Rooster is its unrepentant lord of misrule: older, no wiser and still rocking it.

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