Jerusalem review: Mark Rylance returns for a dark, potent revival of Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play

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Kemi Awoderu, Mark Rylance, Ed Kear, Charlotte O’Leary and Mackenzie Crook in ‘Jerusalem’  (Simon Annand)
Kemi Awoderu, Mark Rylance, Ed Kear, Charlotte O’Leary and Mackenzie Crook in ‘Jerusalem’ (Simon Annand)

Jez Butterworth’s hit 2009 play Jerusalem takes a small, grubby woodland clearing and fills it with a distinctly English kind of magic. Not the twee, spangled kind of faeries and spells. Something rougher and darker, and as gnarled and twisted as an old elm tree. In this revival, arriving more than a decade since the play first premiered, all the old magic is intact and potent as ever.

Its original star Mark Rylance is still in place, and his much-acclaimed Olivier and Tony Award-winning central performance as rustic antihero Johnny “Rooster” Byron is still very much a thing to marvel at. He begins with a carnival feat of endurance: downing a full jug of milk, eggs and vodka, and splashing the gloopy mixture on his already stained vest in a grotesque attempt at a hangover cure. But his real curative powers come with words, not deeds. He lifts himself and the teenage misfits who flock to his caravan out of the grime of their immediate surroundings by crafting tall tales that mix fiction and fact, myth and the mundane. In one masterful story, he depicts his meeting with the giant who built Stonehenge, using a lighter stood on its end to represent himself, and then looming over it, swelling to seemingly mythical proportions. In another, he imagines the story of his birth, the powerful sperm that created him borne on a bullet into the womb of his Virgin Mary-like mother. He’s an artist with a vivid palette of history, religion and folklore to paint with, and it’s impossible to do more than sit slack-jawed and listen.

But Butterworth’s play evolves into something more than a storytelling session with a man you should never, ever trust your kids with. It’s a study of opposing forces. On the one hand, there’s sanitised modern life, represented by the new estate and its residents, who are perpetually complaining about Byron’s caravan and the tumultuous parties that spill out of it. On the other, there’s the wildness and darkness embedded in human nature: the teasing, pleasure-seeking instincts that lead Wiltshire’s youth into the woods to booze, fight and rail against their parents’ more orderly ways.

There’s a real cruelty to Jerusalem’s vision of Englishness, whether it’s the petty council men who relish the chance to evict Byron, or the young people who make fun of him when his back is turned. It’s unsparing, especially its brutal third act. But there’s warmth, too. Ian Rickson’s production teems with life – including an animal cast of chickens, a tortoise, and a goldfish – and brings a kind of desperate, fierce chemistry to the play’s central relationship between Byron and his accomplice Ginger (an engagingly pedantic Mackenzie Crook).

Jerusalem is an exercise in myth-making, one that’s equally in love with the legends of Old England and modern tales of drunken derring-do. Perhaps it overly romanticises its drug-peddling hero, but with Rylance in the role, its spell is irresistible.

‘Jerusalem’ runs at London’s Apollo Theatre until 7 August

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