The Royal Court Theatre production of Jerusalem is named after William Blake’s iconic poem of the same name. A favourite hymn to many, Jerusalem reveres the majesty of bucolic England – a countryside so beautiful that Christ himself must surely have been born here. It is with a sense of irony then that Jez Butterworth’s play begins with the morning-after-the-night-before carnage at Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron’s trailer in the woods of Flintock, Wiltshire. Rudely awoken by the local council on St George’s day issuing an eviction notice in lieu of a decision to build the new estate in Rooster wood, Johnny stumbles out, limping, and fixes his inevitable hangover with a milk, raw egg and vodka concoction. This spinner of yarns is a modern day Pied Piper, father and drug dealer rolled into one, as his home of twenty years is local party destination for underage revelers and old friends alike. St George’s day heralds the beginning of the annual Flintock village fair and presents a chance for Johnny and his motley crew to do what Brits do best and go mental.
The play is quick-witted, uproarious and bears all the hallmarks of modern British culture which we all know and love: binge-drinking, underage sex, Morris dancers, cups of tea, bacon rolls and village fetes. The post-party destruction in the first scene is all too familiar to students and cainers and signals the squalid and debauched lifestyle which Johnny has become famed for – a sharp contrast to the idyllic forest setting, the real trees used on stage and the various live animals that make an appearance throughout the performance, including the chickens which live under the Rooster’s trailer.
Jerusalem treats us to some brilliantly bizarre scenes which see Johnny recounting the tale of his encounter with a one hundred foot giant, a professor donning a Pope’s hat on acid and the very awkward conversation between the Rooster and his ex about taking his little boy Marky to the fair as the ex snorts coke and the boy is out of sight in the trailer. The three acts are punctuated by bursts of song from Phaedra, the fifteen-year-old runaway, whose stepfather beats Johnny up in an incredibly intense and moving scene in which he is assaulted to the sound of Joni Mitchell-esque music.
Mark Rylance gives an superbly entertaining performance as the pathetic anti-hero, Johnny Byron, evoking all the pity that such a mess of a character rightly deserves, without any of the self-indulgent monologues as he did as Hamm in the recent West End production of Beckett’s Endgame. Mackenzie Crook does what he does best, making comedy out of the weedy, nerdy roles he is landed with, as wannabe DJ, Ginger, while the rest of the cast make up a perfect crew of West Country wasters.
Jerusalem is such an excellent and hilarious social satire that it would not be surprising if it were made into a television comedy sometime in the future: it would definately have a lot of viewers.