Protean gifts: Mark Rylance in "Jerusalem"
Jez Butterworth's new play Jerusalem aroused my deepest prejudices when I first heard about it. A state-of-the-nation play set around a mobile home in a tip, dealing with the anti-social antics of a drunken gypsy dope dealer and a few hopeless teenagers, struck me as something well worth missing. When the play moved from the Royal Court to the Apollo Theatre in the West End, and people kept saying how outstanding it was, I was tempted by their enthusiasm to cling perversely to my prejudices. That was very wrong. Jerusalem, despite some faults, is one of those rare productions that should not be missed. There is still a chance to see it.
It is indeed a state-of-the nation drama about a gypsy drug dealer living in a rubbish dump in a woodland clearing from which the council is threatening to evict him. He is surrounded, like a delinquent Pied Piper, by troubled kids in pursuit of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But Jerusalem is about more than that. For all the contemporary love and squalor, all the swearing and vomiting and underage sex, all the jokes and the badger shit, this is a play about ancient myth and magic. It is about the anarchic power of the green wood and the folklore of the didicoi-the English Romanies. It is about long-lost folk stories and forgotten giants and the laying of curses. It is also very funny.
Jerusalem is both a celebration of England's green and pleasant land, past and present, and a lament. It straddles time and convention, from West Country effing and blinding to ancient incantation, from light comedy to tragic brutality, from Gog and Magog and Hern the Hunter to the Lord of Misrule and the abused Queen of the May, from the magic of the wild wood to the bulldozers of Kennet and Avon council. Even the council's name has resonance: it conjures up the swan of Avon and the forest of Arden. To bring all these elements together in a play that is extremely moving and to do so without a trace of kitsch, whimsy or Merrie England is a remarkable artistic achievement, not least when all the dialogue is in a West Country accent.
Butterworth must take credit for most of this. He is a powerful counter-example to the theory that there aren't many great playwrights around today. The breadth of his imagination and the range of his language are dazzling. He can move from low-life West Country incoherence to poetic lyricism in almost the same moment. Just as his play is unusually rich in the resonances of English history, his dialogue is unusually rich in the resonances of the English language. Even so, Jerusalem's success absolutely depends on the exceptional performance of Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Bryan, the play's heroic anti-hero and the strutting cock of Rooster's Wood. Rylance makes the play, and this is a double achievement, because he does so despite the weakness of some of the other actors.