by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
with Mark Rylance and MacKenzie Crook
Shaftesbury Avenue, London
29th October 2011
Mark Rylance (Johnny “Rooster” Byron)
Mackenzie Crook (Ginger)
Max Baker (Wesley)
Alan David (The Professor)
Aimeé-Ffion Edwards (Phaedra)
Johnny Flynn (Lee)
Geraldine Hughes (Dawn)
Danny Kirrane (Davey)
Sophie McShera (Pea)
Charlotte Mills (Tanya)
Sarah Moyle (Ms Fawcett)
Harvey Robinson (Mr Parsons).
The play is summed up on the cover of the script (only £5 at the theatre):
On St George’s Day, the morning of the local country fair, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, local waster and modern-day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his son wants to be taken to the fair, a father wants to give him a serious kicking, and a motley crew of mates wants his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.
It’s hard when the Sunday Times Culture front cover has A.A. Gill on the genius of Mark Rylance, an actor giving the most miraculous performance of our lifetime. Where do you go from the best thing a major critic has ever seen? Go to The Observer, where it’s repeated The best performance I’ve ever seen. Rylance won the Tony Award for best actor in this role. You can only be a great actor in a great play, and The Guardian also said it is Unarguably one of the best dramas of the 21st century. OK, eighty-nine years to go, but unless tastes change radically, it’s got to be in with a shout. If The Guardian simply means ‘so far’ then yes. No question. Reaction to the play is laden with superlatives.
The whole cast is superb, but Mackenzie Crook (who illustrated the Wiltshire map and the plants and decorative art in the programme) needs special mention. His casting as Gareth in The Office got him doing a Swindon accent. Maybe that’s how he got signed up for the original Royal Court production in 2009. Rylance and Crook stayed together through The Royal Court in 2009, The Apollo in 2010, then Broadway in April 2011 and back to The Apollo in October 2011. More than half the cast went through all four venues. That’s not a surprise. Who would want to leave such a monumental production?
The magnificent set (This is not the Apollo: the girls look different)
The play is set in Flintock, Wiltshire, a fictional location on Salisbury Plain, somewhere near Marlborough, not far from Tidworth, a town that’s grown round an army base. Wiltshire is not far away from home. The basic accent is not dissimilar to Dorset or Somerset. I’m often in Wiltshire. Do people speak like they do in Jerusalem? Yes, exactly like that. I’ve heard similar conversations in similar accents with a similar degree of swearing in Blandford, Dorchester, Kinson, Poole, Salisbury, Devizes (especially), Tidworth (especially), and Swindon (almost exclusively). Jez Butterworth has captured the sound of the area, and indeed its expressed rural prejudices (via the angry step-dad, Troy) about “diddicays” and “pikeys” which means gypsies, and Byron talks of his Romany blood. It’s irritating to be coy about typing four letter words, but having regard to Google searches, I’m going to asterisk. The play has the word c*nt in more than any play I’ve seen. It’s right for Wiltshire. I recall a genuine conversation in a shop in Dorset, not far away.
Proprietor: Half the f*ckers that come in here are uselss c*nts coming in out the f*cking rain.
Woman browsing: I beg your pardon!
Proprietor: Sorry, my lovely. Present company excepted. I meant the other c*nts that come in here, not you.
The first reaction is that the proprietor is too coarse to know he’s caused offence. Not so. He’s having fun with language, as Johnny Byron does throughout.
The programme describes Johnny as Puck, the oldest of the ancient woodland fairies. One of the 16 year old girls (played by Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera) is called Pea (Peasblossom?). When I was fifteen or sixteen there were always characters around the clubs and venues like Johnny: lone males in their thirties or early forties, hanging around with the fifteen and sixteen year olds. The kids look up to them greatly for a while, then as they get a bit older, they start to take the piss. That’s the case here, and why the character of Ginger (MacKenzie Crook) is so crucial. The kids stop coming to Johnny’s encampment when they get to fifteen or sixteen, just as their mums and dads did. But not Ginger. Ginger can talk about the past. He’s overstayed his time with Johnny by many years, which is why he’s also the butt of jokes and banter.
Johnny Byron (Rylance) and Ginger (Crook)
The start is explosive. A solo rendering of William Blake’s Jerusalem by Phaedra (the missing 15 year old) front of curtain crashes into the noise of the “gathering” rave at Johnny’s the night before the story starts. Jerusalem is (a) not a hymn but (b) the tune most chosen in Britain at both weddings and funerals.
Then Johnny emerges to swill his morning cocktail of milk, vodka and speed (I hadn’t realised it was speed till I read the script, but we know it’s something chemical and nasty). There’s a live chicken wandering around the stage pecking.
The play is full of great tales, told by Johnny or told by Ginger. Each of them is a worthwhile story in themselves. The giant story is masterly. Rylance’s acting cements his claim as the best stage actor of his generation. Period. My wife disagreed that it was the best performance she’d seen. She thought Rylance in La Bête (reviewed here) a year ago just shaded it. I couldn’t put anything between the two. Rylance at points (as when confonted by the enraged step-dad, Troy) acts with his back to the audience. I’ve never seen a back act like it! Troy (Barry Sloane) towers over the rest of the cast, seeking his errant step-daughter Phaedra, and is genuinely scary. Rylance is an amazing physical actor. We can see the knocks and injuries sustained in his supposed career as a daredevil motorbike rider at agricultural shows in every twist and painful limp. I’d thought Kevin Spacey in Richard III was a masterclass in onstage limping, but Rylance even out-limped him.
The play moves inexorably from high comedy to tragedy. We see poignancy in the scene with Dawn (Geraldine Hughes) the mother of his six year old son. The heartrending use of Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Sandy Denny over the most violent scene is a perfect marriage of song and action. I can’t think of any aspect of the production, direction, set design, acting that you could find the faintest thing to fault. It deserved its standing ovation.
Driving home. MacKenzie Crook was on BBC Radio Four talking about his drawings, and also about Jerusalem. He mentioned Broadway and the louder laughs and reaction from the audience, which meant they had to re-establish their pausing in London where reactions are less vocal, though as Crook said, they were still straight on their feet at the end. I was interested in how American audiences took the accent, but seemingly they could follow the humour.
Half price (£5 instead of £9.99) if you buy it there. It’s well worth it. I got back and started reading, which is great while the actors’ voices still ring in your head. I suspect that lines change in production with actors as inventive as Rylance and Crook, but you also miss quite a few bits among the laughing, and there are several lines I hadn’t noticed.
First rate with lots of photos from the production (earlier ) rather than those rehearsal shots. That helps jog the memory later. There are notes from Jez Butterworth on where and when he heard the various tall tales that inspired him.
Like so many West End of London venues, the Apollo is a nasty grubby gilt-trimmed 19th century theatre. You have to contribute £1 to the restoration fund with your ticket. I’d rather they demolished it altogether. We were in Row R, in the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in anywhere in a theatre. They are low, there’s a step up for that row, making them lower, and at 6 foot 1 inch tall, my knees were severely and painfully compressed throughout. To add injury to injury, there was a pair of binoculars screwed on the seat in front. At £55 a ticket, the seats in that row are appalling, worse than the worst charter flight. If it hadn’t been one of the best productions of one of the most compelling plays I’ve ever seen, I’d never have survived three hours. Add woefully inadequate toilets. One of the lines is about Byron seeing Jack and The Beanstalk at “Salisbury Arts Centre”. He says:
First of all, that’s one of the worst pantomimes I’ve ever been to. I was only there because my mate Tonka helped build the beanstalk.
Hmm. I saw a production of Jack and The Beanstalk at Salisbury Playhouse (which is the Arts Centre for Salisbury), an inocuous, slightly dull and very traditional pantomime, which is their style. But while I laughed out loud at the reference, I remembered the excellent stage, superb seating and comfortable public areas at Salisbury. But Salisbury could never get £55 for a ticket. We wondered if Jez Butterworth had a niggle about Salisbury Playhouse (which produces a lot of plays). We wondered too why Jerusalem wasn’t in a better theatrical space, but the fabulous set has realistic trees disappearing out of sight around Byron’s caravan, and I guess that only works on a proscenium stage. There are lots of those in the West End, and actors seem to love these cramped West End gilt-trimmed red plush seated theatres. As a spectator, I’d far rather be south of the river.
Maybe this error is that legendary wrong thread in a Persian carpet. Perfection is reserved for God. I’ve added this note to my list of similar in the Sloppy Fiction article here. The writer, Jez Butterworth, explains in the programme notes that he moved to Wiltshire in 1994. Why then does he have them talk about the A14 road at Upavon? Roads with “1” numbers are all east of the M1, and in the north and Scotland. Roads in the south-west universally have “3” and “4” numbers. I drive that way from Salisbury to Marlborough frequently. Fortunately I don’t retain road numbers, but I know it’ll begin with “3”. (I Googled … A345 or A342).
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010