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Jez Butterworth

Apollo Theatre  (16 April – 10 August 2022)

Review by Amanda Vilanova


Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth has been discussed so much that my journey to the Apollo Theatre was marked by a sense of giddy anticipation. I have been hearing about the piece for years and wondered if I really was about to watch, as the Guardian describes it, the ‘play of the century’. The theatre was filled to the brim. I took my seat up in the balcony and, as I stared at the St George’s Cross lit up on the stage, I was infected by an intense desire to dislike the play; to go against the tide of unrestrained praise. The lights went down. The St George’s Cross rose to reveal a trash-laden camp site with a large caravan and live chickens.

Kennet and Avon council are intent on evicting Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance), a seemingly permanent resident of a wood in Wiltshire. He is a lawless man who attracts a host of individuals who live outside of polite society: lost souls, young and old, looking for a party oasis away from home. The cohort of unruly characters builds slowly with flourishing entrances from surprising places. The fact that a girl, the reigning festival queen, has gone missing is introduced to us in passing, among the quick-witted back and forth. 

Rooster is a depraved man. He gives drugs to minors, snorts coke, has a shot of vodka in his morning tea, and has no job to speak of. He also tells wondrous stories that fascinate his followers and us, the audience; we cannot help but be attracted to him. He is important, however fleetingly, to each of his visitors and an essential part of the woodland. He is inextricably linked to it and his presence gives those who seek him out a sense of belonging. This is Johnny’s ‘green and pleasant land’ and what right does anyone have to remove him from it? The English landscape becomes a character in itself, first attacked by the ‘satanic mills’ alluded to in the titular hymn and now invaded by upscale housing developments and subjected to gentrification. 

In the second act a man named Troy walks on, searching for his missing daughter. It is suggested Troy isn’t the girl’s real father and may be abusing her. His behaviour on and offstage leaves the audience thinking about the difference between a wild man and an evil one. What makes a man decent? Where is evil truly found? How does it grow and flourish among seemingly law-abiding people?

So much of English culture, appreciated globally, reveals a kind of repression. We love reading about and watching the British royal family fighting (and often failing) to contain their lust, or the upper echelon of society being caught between dignity and desire. Jerusalem takes you to a different place. A real and tangible corner of Englishness where drugs and alcohol are consumed to escape all kinds of things: poverty, lack of opportunities, boredom, shyness and depression. I was taken into a world truer to reality than the world of privilege more commonly admired by outside eyes. The set design and lighting contribute to this feeling. The hyper-realistic set by Ultz gives the actors scope to play. The lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin, manages to reflect not only the passing of time but also conflicts between the characters. 

Mark Rylance’s performance is outstanding. It is as if every step, every line, every thought arises in the moment. When he listens, he does so with his entire body. Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, the most loyal of the group, is wonderful to watch, balancing comedic one-liners with a devotion to Johnny that he tries his best to hide. The rest of the cast is good, particularly Gerard Horan as the unhappy publican who drops in every so often with a piece of news or a bittersweet story.

My biggest qualm with the script is its superficial portrayal of women, particularly the two younger females. They lack depth and are more symbols of youth than fully fleshed-out individuals. The scene with Johnny’s ex-partner, negotiating over their son, slightly forced in comparison to the rest of the play, was a missed opportunity to explore the main character’s relationship with the important women in his life. However, overall, the piece is quick, exciting, funny, and heart-breaking.

The final fifteen minutes of the show are overwhelming. I was overcome with pity, laughter, shock, and admiration in quick succession. I haven’t seen enough English theatre to call it the play of the century, but it is undoubtedly one of the best plays I have ever seen. The comedy and cruelty juxtapose one another; this is done very well, and is a thrill to watch.