Jerusalem (again) (Apollo Theatre 1/2/10) 2 February 2010

I went back for more although I wasn't impressed the first time. An opportunity arose to see it again without anything to lose (but time). So, I went for it and to be honest, there were some extenuating circumstances that clouded my first viewing and I wanted to be sure I gave it a fair shot, especially after it has been praised to the skies as the best play of the previous decade.

Here were the extenuating circumstances. I was dead centre in the first row (finances) and as many of you may already be aware, the Jerusalem set has really brought the outdoors in - real grass, real trees. Add to that a huge caravan and a large cast and I wondered if I was too close, I could smell the fertiliser and watch tiny flying insects just above the grass. Second, I had a bit of a hunger issue on that day which manifested itself as tummy rumbles. Nothing to be embarrassed about - unless you are dead centre in the front row and the actors are performing a quiet scene three feet away (act 3). So, to try and alleviate the systems I was squirming a a bit and trying to apply, covert pressure on the areas where I thought the rumblings were coming from. Needless to say, my concentration waned. Lastly I distinctly remember getting double vision, the kind you get when you are over tired and are trying at all costs to keep your eyes open. So, I figured by eating before the performance, ensuring I wasn't tired, and not sitting in the front row, I could eliminate all those obstacles which lead me to not enjoy it the first time. What did I learn from all that preparation? Those external obstacles were not the problem.

While watching it this time, I realised the Jerusalem is like watching an extended version of a TV sketch show. I think there's an argument there. Most TV sketch shows (think Little Britain and to a greater extent The Catherine Tate Show) have recurring characters. What sketch shows don't do is expand those characters into fully realised people, because, that wouldn't be funny. That's not what we watch them for. We want the quick, clever comedy that comes from obvious character traits - an immediate level of recognition.

In Jerusalem, just like a really good sketch show, the razor sharp dialogue comes fast and furious, one funny line after another - one put down after another - one funny situation after another - one too many after another. It's relentless and repetitive (like sketch shows when the character has outstayed their welcome). What we learn from a few exchanges is repeated in various forms, numurous times. Indeed, it's a laugh fest - for a while - but then each successive exchange gets more and more obvious. It seems like I'm digressing but I'm just trying to plant an image in your head so if I say that playwright Jez Butterworth is a great sketch show writer you will understand where I'm coming from.

It must have been hard work for the actors, each trying to make their character an individual but, no matter how much work they put into it, they will remain stock characters, enitrely interchangeable. At the Royal Court, their version of a programme is the playtext which I have from my first visit, so I looked into the writers descriptions of his characters. Usually, there's a little snippet of information that will give a clue as to who these people are. Here is Mr Butterworth's about four of the main characters:

1. Ginger played by Mackenzie Crook

Enter Ginger from behind the trailer singing....he puts his hand to his ear and air-scratches on an air-turntable.

2. Lee played by Tom Brooke

A young man, Lee, suddenly sits up from the couch, gasping.

3.Davey played by Danny Kirrane

Enter Davey, in big shades with an accordion.

4. Pea and Tanya played by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Mills

From beneath the trailer crawl two sixteen year old girls, Pea and Tanya.

That's pretty much all we get. All other traits were obviously created by the actors, the costume designers and the director. The most realised character is Johnny played by Mark Rylance and here's his description -

Wiry. Weathered; drinkers mug, Bare chest. Helmet. Goggles Loudhailer. Despite a slight limp he moves with the balance of a dancer, or animal.

It's now easy to see why, in addition to being a great actor, Mark Rylance rises head and shoulders above everyone else.

The entire cast from the original run have trasferred with the production and the same problems I had with four of them at the Royal Court I have at the Apollo. They aren't very good. And if you are having to carve your character out of a void you had better be real good. Maybe the lack of experience in those actors was a smokescreen to hide the lack of character?

I have three final gripes before I leave you in peace. First - these characters, although familiar and funny in their own way, come across as hilarious. These are drug taking, foul mouthed, unachievers who think of nothing to partake in a few lines of coke with teenagers. The audience continually whoops it up on the laughter front. Are they laughing with them or at them? Is it really funny or rather sad? I find it a misstep. Second - as has been proved in other Jez Butterworth productions I've seen - notably Parlour Song at the Almeida - he doesn't write women well. Actually he doesn't write them at all. They just exist and say some lines. They are just foils as is the case of one major female figure in Jerusalem, she makes a speech daming Johny then does what he does. Owing that we know nothing about her other than her realtionship to the main character this really makes no sense. Thirdly, it's really long, way too long for what it is. I kept thinking during the performance (not a good sign) of what they could have cut. Finally, I found that each of the three act was less interesting than the one before it. When we finally arrived at what seemd like the end I was begging for it to be over but, no. There were about three false endings. It was like Michael Meyers in Halloween, just when you though he was dead... but Halloween was at least interesting.

I can understand admiring parts of this - the set, the mostly clever dialogue, Mark Rylance - even Mackenzie Crook, Tom Brooke and Danny Kirrane are very good, but how can you just ignore the really bad parts - lack of characterisation, excessive repetitive length and some really clunky performances? Could it be a sheep mentality? Who knows, but like my friend said - 'You couldn't pay me to sit through that again'.