By Ray Bennett
LONDON – “We are an unruly people,” Queen Elizabeth I warned the King of Spain, by which she meant the likes of Johnny “Rooster” Byron the Romany outlaw who cries freedom from his little patch of English forest in Jez Butterworth’s indecently exhilarating play “Jerusalem”.
Mark Rylance won the Olivier and Tony Award for his performance as a cantankerous thorn in the side of the complaisant suburban middle class that wishes to see him thrown out of his tiny piece of rural England, and he’s back in the West End for another run through Jan. 14.
He gives a marvellous performance as a former stuntman and full-time rascal with a rampaging lust for life in a splendid play that captivates from the start and right away makes the three-hour running time seem like it will be way too short.
Critics have made the point that Rooster is quintessentially English in his determination to be independent and lack of interest in pleasing anyone. There’s truth to that, but Butterworth has crafted the role and Rylance plays him just as much as the man described in Ed and Patsy Bruce’s classic American country song, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” – “Them that don’t know him won’t like him, and them that do sometimes won’t know how to take him. He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him do things to make you think he’s right.”
Johnny lives not far from new suburban housing in a disreputable caravan by some trees on a spot that he has made his own small Camelot where he dispenses wisdom, fanciful tales, liquor, drugs and kindness to a motley assortment of visitors. Some are young and wild, others are old and weary and some are just plain scared, but the Rooster provides safe haven except to the bullies, busybodies and bureaucrats who wish he would just go away.
The language is ferociously and hilariously vulgar as Johnny regales his acolytes with stories of sexual conquests, battles with officialdom and encounters with giants. His speech is relentlessly entertaining and just maybe some of his yarns have an element of truth, but that doesn’t matter. Rylance’s command of his character’s outlandish manner is unforgettable.
Among the colourful individuals who show up to enjoy Johnny’s company and supply of various kinds of nourishment are Mackenzie Crook, outstanding as a philosophical would-be disc jockey who would like to be a closer friend than the Rooster will allow. Alan David makes his befuddled professor quite moving and Danny Kirrane is pitch perfect as a pub landlord torn between his affection for Johnny’s largesse and duties as a publican and Morris dancer.
Director Ian Rickson draws matching contributions from the rest of the cast and Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck provides evocative music that echoes the Rooster’s cantankerous moods. Rylance’s performance, the play and the production will be spoken of for a very, very long time.
Venue: Apollo Theatre, London (runs through Jan. 14). Cast: Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, Alan David, Johnny Flynn, Danny Kirrane, Aime-Ffion Edwards. Playwright: Jez Butterworth; Director: Ian Rickson; Set designer: Ultz; Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Sound designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph; Music: Stephen Warbeck.
Here is the extraordinary speech that Mark Rylance gave in New York when he won the Tony Award for ‘Jerusalem’.