Thursday 23 July 2009
Green and pleasant land?
That, without the question mark, was how some unwitting PR person advertised a Royal Philharmonic concert last season ending with the big bang, grand slam of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony; black and brutal would have been closer to the mark. And in Jez Butterworth’s new play (I wouldn't advertise it as a comedy, exactly) Jerusalem at the Royal Court Theatre you know that the show-song delivery of the Parry/Blake anthem by a winged fairy (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) beneath a faded St George flag can only be rudely interrupted. Later the fairy is revealed as a missing 15 year old girl (and I'm not giving away much of the plot there). All Royal Court production photos here are by Simon Annand.
The memorable stage and lighting designs, by the way, which don't figure enough in the images I have, are by the great Richard Jones's regular collaborators, Ultz and Mimi Jordan Sherin, here working for Butterworth's director of choice, Ian Rickson.
The vocal-solo 'Jerusalem' is blasted away as the dropcloth rises on a rave outside the trailer of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron: king of a Wiltshire wood, former local Evil Knievel until he ‘died’ in a bike-leap too far, now forest troll, Peter Pan, Pied Piper and refuge both for the aimless young and the lost not-so-young (Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, a consummate performance). Byron’s time is up: in the morning fall-out, a Community Liaison Officer posts an eviction notice on the caravan door.
Does Butterworth sentimentalise country semi-ferals? They’re all likeable; and yet in my limited experience the Glastonbury and Taunton folk dabbling in the spiritual smorgasbord of pagan England present a sadder, more complex picture. Is it enough to offer local youths anaesthetics from the pain of life and baldly declare ‘school is a lie’? Isn’t it harder to try and show active beauty in music, nature, words (oh dear, here I go Fotherington-Thomasing again)? Butterworth raises laughs that are sitcommish at times, yet they’re thrust home by a mostly brilliant ensemble with a good sense of comic timing. Playing the not-entirely-devoted courtiers of Mark Rylance's Falstaffian lord of misrule here are Crook, Charlotte Mills, Jessica Barden, Danny Kirrane and Alan David (very touching as a poetic old professor).
I felt slightly uneasy, all the same, surrounded by a fashionable throng of soap stars and other actors watching their friends play rural chavs.
Two things make this a rich experience, and they’re inseparable. Butterworth gives the chameleonic, ambiguous Rooster speeches and scenes which make you believe in the numinous power of country lore; and that charismatic, unpredictable genius of our stage Mark Rylance makes time stand still when they happen.
He stumbles over his lines a bit at first, maybe deliberately to give an air of realism, but already that uncanny knack he has of fixing individuals in the audience makes you complicit. In the second act, he impersonates the 90-foot giant with whom he’s supposed to have conversed, a moment of sheer theatrical hold-your-breath magic. And in Act Three the full stillness, danger and pathos come through. As I have the programme-text and the windbaggery of blogging means I don’t have to watch my word count, here he is talking about some of the things he’s witnessed in his romany existence:
‘I’ve seen a lot of strange things in this wood. (Beat.) I seen a plague of frogs. Of bees. Of bats. I seen a rainbow hit the earth and set fire to the ground. I seen the air go still and all sound stop and a golden stag clear this clearing. Fourteen-point antlers of solid gold. I heard an oak tree cry. I’ve heard beech sing hymns. I seen a man they buried in the churchyard Friday sitting under a beech eating an apple on Saturday morning. When the light goes, and I stare out into the trees, there’s always pairs of eyes out there in the dark, watching. Foxes. Badgers. Ghosts. I seen lots of ghosts. (Beat.) I seen women burn love letters. Men dig holes in the dead of night. I seen a young girl walk down here in the cold dawn, take all her clothes off, wrap her arms round a broad beech tree and give birth to a baby boy. I seen first kisses. Last kisses. I seen all the world pass by and go. Laughing. Crying. Talking to themselves. Kicking the bracken. (Beat.) Elves and fairies, you say. (Beat.) Elves and fairies.’
All this has an authenticity because I know that Rylance holds fervent beliefs in alternative ritual. Some of this is touched upon in a vivid Torygraph interview which makes me feel very nostalgic for the Globe's golden age (it seems I must have seen Rylance in Brenton's Bloody Poetry at the Royal Court, too, before I knew who he was, though I remember it as utterly compelling).
So the final drumming to summon spirits – I’ll say no more – feels very real. If Rylance doesn’t walk off with a clutch of awards come prizegiving time, there’ll have to be an even more astonishing performance in the offing. Jerusalem may not be a great play throughout – of that I’m still unsure – and it's generously overstuffed with ideas, but it does have a great last act, and that’s one of the hardest things in the world to bring off. It haunted my dreams and I'm still, as you can gather, thinking about it. Good news: the sold-out run has been extended to 22 August.
Moongazing is one of the few country activities not much touched upon in Jerusalem. To complement that fun Melies image, here’s the cover of an old ‘man on the moon special’ I dug out from what remains of my childhood collection (I’ve still got a Doctor Who 10th anniversary brochure, which I’m assuming the fanatics would pay a fair bit for, and a few old film mementoes).
So forty years have passed since those images hit our black and white telly. I remember them well.