I remember back in the day when a new play called Mojo was on at the Royal Court. It caused alot of buzz, was 'the' ticket to get and Hollywood celebrities were flying over to see it. Jez Butterworth was the man of the moment. I never got to see that production but all the same I was fascinated by it - by the image of the bloodied face, by the title , by the names of the characters and by the 1950's Soho setting. It wasn't unit many years later that I saw a production of Mojo at the small Rosemary Branch theatre in Islington. It was a good production but I felt a bit let down. It had great verbal sparring but I felt that it was lacking something. I wanted to know more about the characters, gain some sort of insight to help me care about them. With Mojo, and I am obviously in the minority on this as it won all sorts of awards, it just seemed to be bits of great verbal interactions strung together with a thread of plot. The emperors new clothes? Just a thought.
I tried to watch the film version but became so bored I think I only made it less than a third of the way in. I did however like his film Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman and the great Ben Chaplin. It had heart. Funny enough though, there wasn't alot of the verbal sparring. More recently I saw Parlour Song at the Almeida Theatre. Evidently it was on Broadway but I don't remember hearing about it and I try to keep up. But hey, I'm no expert so, oh well. Anyway, Parlour Song was a strange ride. On one hand you have knockout uber hilarious performances from Andrew Lincoln and Toby Jones and on the other hand you get a semi forced story that concerns the wife of one of the characters. Nothing much comes of it and I came away feeling sorry for the poor woman who had to play the wife as Butterworth didn't seem to know or really care about her character.
I booked for Jerusalem on the strength of Mark Rylance being in the cast and knowing that if I booked sooner rather than later I could get a £10 ticket. So onwards and up...onwards and onwards to Jerusalem at the Royal Court Theatre, £10, front row, centre. Advance word was, as always is the case with Jez Butterworth, veering off the scale. 'Amazing', 'fantastic', 'genius' blah blah blah. I try my best to ignore this type of thing and I think I made a valiant effort to erase the plaudits from my mind.
Undeniably, the best thing about the production are the performances and every part is cast extremely well. This was not surprising as you have to have a certain skill to handle the verbal elements. Mark Rylance is fantastic, bringing his character Johnny Byron, a 40ish, drug dealing absentee father who lives in a 50's caravan on a plot of land earmarked for development, to life. Here's the basis of the play from the back of the playtext -
On St George's Day, the morning of the local country fair, Johnny Byron, local waster and modern day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, his children want their dad take them to the fair, Troy Whitworth wants to give him a serious kicking, and a motley crew of mates want his ample supply of drugs and alcohol. Jerusalem is a comic, contemporary vision of life in England's green and pleasant land.
The 'motley crew' get a special mention for being great. Mackenzie Crook (The Office) gives an expectedly touching performance and someone I wasn't familiar with, Tom Brooke who plays Lee the one emigrating to Australia, is a talent to watch. Honestly, there isn't one bad link.
Here is my act by act Jerusalem experience:
Act One - Great set by Ultz - a real 1950's silver streamline caravan in a real wooded area - trees, grass all real (I could smell the fertilizer in the front row and was dodging the occasional fly). Under the trailer there were real chickens and later a turtle. Interesting set up - very funny. We find out about most of the 14 characters.
Act Two - A bit more depth, we find out about the rest of the characters, most importantly Johnny's son and the mother of his son. Promising. By this point I wanted to know where it was going.
Act Three - This is where it fell down for me. The performances got very - slow and 'important'. Lots of long speeches. At the end of each I thought it was the end. But no, went on and on and on. It dipped into Mojo land with violence and blood, then still went on and on. (I was distracted for a moment by a mouse that bounded from the chicken coop and hid behind a set piece). Act three was when I realised Jerusalem wasn't really saying anything we didn't already know, or had heard on numerous Channel 4 documentaries.
Jerusalem is good in an observational sort of way. Again, the dialogue comes up trumps but I did think it felt a bit laboured this time around. I find it hard to believe that people can continuously spew funny lines. By then end I felt I had been hit over the head with a club called 'the point'. Get it? Got it. Good. It could have been edited into two acts, easily, without losing anything but you know what? With it's nods to Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream and Lear), it's portrayal of a contemporary landscape and its great central performance by Mark Rylance, this will be nominated for everything and win a great many. Mark my words.