Watermill Theatre - Jerusalem
21st June to 21st July 2018
Review from Newbury Theatre.
It’s St George’s Day. The Wiltshire village of Flintock is set up for its annual fair and in the woods nearby is Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron’s caravan, dominating the stage and surrounded with a sofa, drinks, drugs and a vast amount of assorted detritus. Two Kennet and Avon council officials have failed to rouse Byron and stuck an eviction notice on the caravan. The Rooster’s abusive tirade through a megaphone at the departing officials sets the tone for the day.
And the Rooster really does rule the roost of his mostly younger hangers on, there for the booze and drugs, and to listen to Byron’s tallest of tall tales of his earlier life, not sure whether to believe or discount.
This is a hell of a part for Jasper Britton to take on – can he hope to match Mark Rylance’s much praised performance in the original London production nine years ago? Well, I didn’t see the original, so I can’t answer that; what I can say is that it was a superbly impressive performance. Yes, he has the charisma and the force of personality to make the character believable but it was also a very sympathetic performance. You can’t help liking him and rooting for him. There’s a huge range of emotions on display, from bellicose to vulnerable; particularly poignant when with his son (a very good deadpan performance from Wilf Busby, one of the three local boys playing Marky, scared of his dad and bullied at school because of his dad’s reputation).
Among his assorted entourage were Peter Caulfield as Ginger, desperately loyal to Byron but not treated well by him, and Adam Burton as the thuggish Troy, reducing Byron to his lowest level with a verbal and physical beating. The strong supporting cast included Robert Fitch as Wesley, the Morris-dancing publican, and Nenda Neurer as the druggie hanger on (Pea) and the winsome lost-child/fairy (Phaedra).
At the end of the day, before the council enforcers move in, Rooster has regained his confidence as, on his own in front of his caravan, he loudly and defiantly prepares for his last stand.
It’s a long play – three hours, including two short intervals – but Lisa Blair’s tight direction ensures it doesn’t drag. It’s up to date, with rural life being overwhelmed by the ever-increasing demand for housing. And yes, it’s a comedy, albeit a dark one.
Review from The Telegraph.
“And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green…” The first words of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, set in the fictional town of Flintock, Wiltshire on the day of its annual fair, borrow audaciously from Blake.
Watching the play’s first professional revival since it stormed from the Royal Court in 2009 to the West End a year later (and then to Broadway), more recent foot-steps come to mind: those of that acting giant Mark Rylance, who created the role of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. So winningly did Rylance bring this Falstaffian anti-hero to reprobate life that he attained the status of a theatrical messiah.
The fittingly bucolic Watermill has good cause to crow as the first regional theatre to get its mitts on this modern classic but how do you follow that Olivier-winning turn? Even in such an intimate space, the pressure is on.
First seen yowling into a megaphone, face obscured by a helmet and goggles, Jasper Britton rises magnificently to the challenge, or rather sinks and slouches to it. He brings less of the strutting peacock to this wild-man of the woods – facing eviction during the St George’s Day fair from his mobile-home, magnet for local kids and much midnight mischief and source of concern for residents at the soulless new estate nearby. You might say comparisons are odoriferous. What Britton lacks in physique he compensates for with pungency: his hair lank, his T-shirt begrimed, he ambles Byron's detritus-strewn patch in biker’s trousers with telling stiffness, every inch the once hallowed, much injured stunt rider reduced to getting barred from boozers for drunken outrages.
Rylance excelled at an otherworldly charm; Britton’s approach is more tramp-next-door - chain-smoking, booze-raddled - mainly downbeat then madly growling. Just as Lisa Blair’s revival argues the case for the play having renewed topicality as house-building (and rural drug-dealing) sweeps the nation, so Britton forces you to see the character afresh as a figure of inspiriting symbolic force and real-life poignancy: a yarn-spinning misfit who invites disdain (even disgust) and yet also covert, needy admiration from those who gather round him - most touchingly, his estranged six-year-old son.
The superb ensemble, meanwhile, make the bravura dialogue sound as revitalising as ever and you’re going to have to fight your way in to get a seat. Let’s hope the play now stays in the repertoire on a more regular basis. Lush.
Review from The Times.
So now we know. If there had been any suspicion that the triumph of Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play first time around in London and New York had really been the triumph of Mark Rylance’s astounding central performance, this first regional revival scotches it.
Lisa Blair’s production confirms that Jerusalem can still throb with energy, ideas, comedy, carnality and complexity for three magical hours. It is a rambunctious rural tragicomedy, a state-of-the-nation play that wouldn’t dream of doing anything so banal as to stop and debate the state of the nation.
Blair has assembled a fine ensemble of ten, but let’s not muck about: the show still rests on whoever is going to play Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the motorcycle daredevil turned middle-aged man in the woods, partying with and selling drugs to the local teens. From the moment that Jasper Britton emerges from the battered caravan on Frankie Bradshaw’s set, shouting and dancing and flicking the Vs, we are getting an original, not a cast-off.
He may be “Wiltshire’s biggest bullshitter”, but Britton’s Byron still emits a life force both grubby and glorious. We know he’s dangerous, we know he’s selfish, but we also know that he’s the smartest guy in the copse and we know he’s fun. So we see why — in a mesmerising central scene — his ex, Natalie Walter’s Dawn, both sees through him and can’t look past him. Rooster Byron is a great role, but Britton shows greatness, too, in how he makes it his own.
Yes, during the first of the three acts this can play as sitcomish: locals congregate, chat and party in their bolthole from reality. Yet if this is a sitcom, it’s the last episode — the one where everything goes to pot. And in the more intimate setting of the Watermill it’s almost easier to see just how acute Butterworth’s writing is, how he shows us individuals whose lives are either changing for good or who are in denial of that flux.
There is foolish behaviour, but there are no fools here. Every character is given their due. Crucially, Britton — and Butterworth — let us fall in love with Rooster, while we know full well he’s shitheel as well as shaman. Our apparently leisurely immersion into an apparently constant world makes it mean plenty when that world unravels (Butterworth used a similar tactic in The Ferryman).
We see our need for something — or someone — bigger than ourselves reflected back at us. So never mind the size of the stage, this modern great play remains immense.
Review from The Guardian.
It takes courage to revive a play that was deemed by so many to be the best British stage production of modern times. And even more courage for a lead actor to risk comparison with the original star, Mark Rylance, who won an Olivier and a Tony for his role in it. So the Watermill shows daring in its staging of Jerusalem, which had a sensational run at the Royal Court in 2009 followed by the West End, twice, as well as Broadway.
If Jez Butterworth’s play exposes the grim realities of rural life and pierces the idealised vision of an Albion idyll, director Lisa Blair here flags up its relevance to Brexit Britain. This is the troubled English countryside many did not acknowledge before the referendum, variously neglected or oppressed by bureaucracy, and in which Old England’s feudal landlords have been replaced by council officials driving non-taxpayer and refusenik Johnny “Rooster” Byron off the land.
Teenagers from the Wiltshire estates who tramp up to the woods for Rooster’s all-night raves and “whizz” are the “Friends, outcasts and leeches,” of his Mark Antony-like address. They want to haul up the borders: “I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop”, says one who never wants to leave home.
The Watermill’s rural Berkshire location is certainly a better fit than a city for a play that engages with the notion of a lost pastoral. The set is dominated by a caravan and a beaten-up sofa with bottles of booze, much like the original. But the intimacy of the space makes the woodland more vivid and darkly oppressive, bringing an anarchic element to the staging: the audience is sprayed with water, cigarette smoke wafts into the stalls, the thump of rave music shakes the ground beneath our feet.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Anarchy in our green and pleasant land
The Watermill's Jerusalem: an outstanding production
Jerusalem, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until July 21
With our minds concentrating on Brexit, the England success (so far) in the World Cup, our achievement in cricket, the very essence of being English is powerfully explored in Jez Butterworth's quintessential multi award-winning play Jerusalem.
It's St George's Day and the villagers of Flintock in Wiltshire are preparing for the annual fete, but not everyone is happy.
In the woods lives gypsy Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in a dilapidated old caravan surrounded by the detritus of his bohemian lifestyle, superbly realised in Frankie Bradshaw's atmospheric set.
Avon and Kennet Council are determined to evict Rooster and tear down his encampment to make way for new houses, but he wants to protect the woodlands although he only has until 6pm before the bulldozers move in.
His caravan is a magnet for the local youngsters who he supplies with drugs, booze and tells his fantastical stories about giants, being born with a bullet in his mouth and his exploits as a motorbike stunt driver jumping over double decker buses, with disastrous results.
Britton, dressed in faded black motorcycle leathers, is absolutely outstanding as the chain-smoking defiant, drunk drug addict. He gives a dynamic visceral performance, owning the stage, and makes the character his very own, dispelling any comparison to Mark Rylance's performance at the Royal Court in 2009.
The play starts with Phaedra (Nenda Neurer) beautifully singing Parry's hymn Jerusalem before the superb cast burst on to the stage with energy and verve. They are a disparate bunch of 'hangers on', feeding off Rooster's philosophy on life.
Pub landlord Wesley (Robert Fitch), dressed in Morris-dancing costume, has banned Rooster from his pub, but still will take a line of cocaine from him.
Richard Evans is the whimsical professor babbling on about the true meaning of forest life while Santino Smith, as Davey, works in an abattoir and is afraid that "If I leave Wiltshire my ears will pop" – unlike Lee (Sam Swann), who is emigrating to Australia, but is reluctant to leave his rural life behind.
Then there is Ginger (Peter Caulfield). creating mayhem as the totally drugged-up misfit.
A sensitive scene between Rooster's ex-girlfriend Dawn (Natalie Walter) and their young son Marky (seven-year-old Wilf Busby) reveals another side of Rooster's character, and there is excellent support from Adam Burton and Rebecca Lee as the promiscuous Tanya.
Lisa Blair's fluid, assured direction is a tour de force and this excellent production should definitely not be missed.
An outstanding production.
There are reviews from The Stage ("incredibly, intimately intense... a really strong revival, deftly miniaturised by [Lisa] Blair without losing any sense of scope or scale" - 3 stars), The Spy In The Stalls ("an inspired production that thanks to Lisa Blair’s excellent direction seems to grow out of the very earth the Watermill theatre stands on" - 5 stars), WhatsOnStage ("just as devastating, pertinent and incandescently funny as you could hope... it's just all so rich, so full of energy and passion a modern classic" - 5 stars), theatreCat (Libby Purves) ("an extraordinarily powerful, utterly complete performance by Jasper Britton... every character stands out" - 5 stars).