Arrows of Desire in Jerusalem
by Mel Cooper
A young fairy named Phaedra comes out on stage before the curtain and sings the iconic hymn Jerusalem (words by William Blake), about England’s “green and pleasant land,” where great and even mystical things happened in ancient times (including Shakespearean magic, which is much referred-to) but where, in Jez Butterworth’s new play, things are more questionable, confusing, and difficult
in the here and now.
The story takes place on St. George’s Day; the action plays out in a woodland clearing (a fantastical and beautiful set by Ulz). We are near a new estate, outside the caravan where Johnny Byron, a gypsy, lives (so you are alerted—by the reference to England’s earlier Bad Boy of the same name—to Butterworth’s referential style throughout the play). The council is about to evict Johnny Byron and bulldoze his home. He was once a motorcycle daredevil who could leap a dozen buses at a time, but after a serious accident is now a Pied Piper to the younger kids of the neighbourhood. Half the town at least is ready to attack him for selling their children drugs and booze, and providing a place to escape into anarchy. He is brutal, foul-mouthed, and hilariously funny when we meet him.
In a work that provokes laughter first, then complex thought, then sadness and even horror, constructed to evoke a deepening sense of tragedy, this eclectic story is totally mesmerizing—and over three hours long. The cast is brilliant as an ensemble group, but one has to single out Mark Rylance’s tour de force turn as Johnny Byron. His delivery, his physicality, his accent, and his body language superlatively and totally convey his character and backstory. Mackenzie Crook is also noteworthy as Ginger. But it is Ian Rickson’s brilliant direction that shapes every detail of the entire production.
At Jerusalem‘s conclusion, everything you’ve seen feels inevitable, including the extended ovations. This production achieves what the English Stage Company set out to do in the first place—to make contemporary plays with all the power of classics, that become gripping theatrical events. The run has already been extended due to the response of critics and audiences, and I suspect that a West End transfer will follow.
The Royal Court Theatre, London, presents…
Written by Jez Butterworth
10 Jul – 22 Aug