3/3/10, Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue
An absolute barn-stormer of a performance by Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, gypsy, former motorcycle daredevil, storyteller, drug dealer, Lord of Misrule and mesmeric figure. D claimed she recognised at least half a dozen actors in the audience, no doubt there to pay homage. Rylance deserves a knighthood.
D saw it before when it debuted at the Royal Court. I had to miss it. This time we went with G and J and sat three rows back, from where Rylance was overwhelming.
The set is Byron's ageing Airstream caravan, surrounded by battered furniture and assorted junk, in a Wiltshire wood 400 yards across the fields from a new housing estate. It's the day of the annual village fair. We see the local authority officials who have come to evict Byron, the teenagers (and ex-teenagers -- a touching performance by Mackenzie Crook) who congregate at Rooster's to do drink and drugs, party wildly and generally misbehave and grow up, and assorted townsfolk including the landlord of a local pub, dressed for Morris dancing, a vicious young man called Troy who is himself a graduate of Rooster's academy and now stepfather to the 15-year old Phaedra, May Queen, who has gone missing, and Rooster's ex, Dawn, with their little boy.
And there is Rooster. We seem him emerge from the caravan after a heavy night. His face is rigid. His leg is rigid. He upends himself head first into a water trough and then drinks a pint of milk with a raw egg and alka seltzer. He holds himself stiffly throughout: the stiffness of the cripple and of the drunk, though his mind seems far too quick for a drunk's. He has enormous muscles, tattoos, a dark unshaven face, and a pitch-perfect Wiltshire accent. He is (sometimes literally) hypnotic -- we're asked to believe that he can reduce people to trembling helplessness just by staring into their eyes, and we see him do it with Dawn and Troy. He knows all the answers in Trivial Pursuit. One of the high points comes when he tells a story about meeting the giant who built Stonehenge: at its culmination Rooster (as the giant) draws himself up to his full height and bends down to tickle a Zippo lighter (as Rooster) under the chin. Brilliant.
The mixing of the mythic and the modern reminded my of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns. I'm not sure it entirely works here. Jez Butterworth is clearly interested in the way the mundane and the magical intersect, and there was some of that in Parlour Song with Toby Jones, which we saw at the Almeida last year (and which is set on a new housing estate like the off-stage one in Jerusalem). There are lots of references to annual rituals, some meaningful (the 15-year old Phaedra is the May queen, complete with fairy wings, and transformed by the experience: she comes on at the start of each act and sings a song, Blake's Jerusalem at the very beginning), some mocked (Morris dancing).
The first act is very funny. Parts of the second and third are funny too. There's a big laugh for a routine in which some of the kids device a complicated scheme for lending, relending and eventually repaying a fiver with which to buy some "whizz", ending with Rooster's observation: "That's what got this country into such a mess in the first place." There's another big laugh towards the end when one of the council officials is reading out the list of names on the petition to evict Rooster, to some of which Rooster appends explanatory (and dismissive) observations, until to one name he simply says: "Jack X is a cunt". Now why is that so funny? (The language is terrible throughout: loads of C-words and F-words. I wonder what G and J thought?)
But the tone darkens as the play goes on, and the price of Rooster's devil-may-care approach to life becomes clearer. He is a lonely man who cannot form conventional relationships. Troy suspects him of having it away with the 15-year old Phaedra; he probably hasn't, because he has an appreciation of innocence which perhaps comes from being an innocent in some ways himself, but you can't rule it out. He is badly beaten up by Troy's heavies. Apparently his young son is watching because when the boy comes on shortly afterwards Rooster gives him some advice, which culminates in the observation: "Girls are wondrous. No man ever went to his barrow wishing he'd had less sex."
Structurally it's a bit baggy. There's a large cast, some of whom don't appear until after the interval (a sign, I sometimes think, of a playwright who doesn't quite know where he's going). But it's a fine script, a brilliantly-written part, well-directed by Ian Rickson and just brilliantly performed by Rylance.