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Mark Rylance gives a mesmerizing performance as a local outlaw in Jez Butterworth's sprawling new play. logo
Mackenzie Crook, Mark Rylance, Charlotte Mills,
Jessica Barden, Danny Kirrane, and Alan David
in Jerusalem
(© Simon Annand)
Jez Butterworth's sprawling new play of English myth, Jerusalem, now at the Royal Court, boasts an utterly mesmerizing central performance from Mark Rylance as Johnny Byron, known as Rooster to his friends, an outlaw figure living in a trailer in a forest glade near the Wiltshire village of Flintock.

Here, he regularly throws wild, thumping parties, pays no tax, and deals drugs to the locals. Around this modern Pied Piper gathers a small tribe of lost boys and girls:: Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), who longs to be a DJ; Lee (Tom Brooke), who has bigger, if not altogether clearer, plans and a ticket to Australia in his pocket; Davey (Danny Kirane) a chubby blonde slaughterhouse worker who sweats at the thought of ever leaving Wiltshire; a doddering Professor (Alan David) whose grasp on the past is stronger than that on the present; and two teenage girls, Pea and Tanya (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Mills).

Others are less pleased by Byron's activities and the council have slapped a 24-hour eviction notice on the door of his trailer. They want him gone because a new estate is being built on nearby land. The local hard man, Troy Whitworth, is also looking for him because his daughter has gone missing and he suspects Byron knows where she's hiding.

Ian Rickson's production opens with a young girl singing William Blake's hymn in front of St George's cross and ideas of England and Englishness permeate the play. There is talk of ley-lines and giants, old gods, and standing stones. Moreover Jerusalem takes place on St George's day, which is marked by the Flintock village fair, an annual event combing ceremonies of old with candyfloss and a car-park disco.

Rylance is both captivating and repellent as Byron, a former daredevil stunt rider, twin-skilled at self-mythologizing and getting himself barred from local pubs for various unsavoury acts. For all his tall tales and his nimble way with words, there is a sense that much of what he says and does is a shield. There is darkness and damage behind his eyes. Butterworth's writing and Rylance's performance combine to peel back the layers of a man who lets kids snort coke from his table and who gets so drunk he sometimes falls over in the street and urinates on himself.

The tone of the play shifts considerably towards the end, from one of broad and raw comedy to something for more unsettling. Byron is left to stand alone and face the tide of change: the massing Wiltshire constabulary and the council officials in their high-visibility vests. But if the three-hour-plus play clambers and rambles, running wild like ivy, Rickson's direction ensures it never sags.

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