I think about embodiment a lot. Last Saturday I saw a performance at the Royal Court in Sloane Square …
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is played in front of a mobile home in a Wiltshire glade, at the very edge of England’s green and pleasant land. It is the home of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance), an English everyman — lovable, despicable, gypsy, boozer, jester, dealer, sage and former motorcycle stunt man — whose existence is threatened by the satanic mills of England’s ‘New Estate’, filled with pedantry, notices, and micro-bureaucrats in hi-viz sleeveless jackets.
Jerusalem is a vision of contemporary England in crisis, struggling and screaming under the weight of its history. It is England being eaten from the inside out, hoping that the rest of the world will hear her screams because she used to matter.
Rylance’s performance of Rooster is phenomenal. He jettisons any pretence of character, and embodies the weight, ticks and fragility of a near-broken man. Rooster is danced by Rylance — sensitive, forceful, aware — his very pores listening to the possibilities of the lived moment. The wonderfully complex script seems to be written only as it is spoken by Rylance, the words brought into being by his entirety. I was gobsmacked really, and in the final aching image of Rooster banging a drum, summoning the poets and giants of his and England’s past, I witness every ounce of his being believing that this act might just work, but knowing that it is too late … and I understand.
In theatre or performance I can be moved, grabbed, bored, pushed around and shocked, but for the most part I remember the contract I have signed to leave my disbelief at the door. In Rylance’s performance I forgot about the contract. It was a shock to see him (with the rest of the cast) taking their curtain calls after this moment. It felt like a rude (and unnecessary) intrusion on Rooster’s reality. Sometimes I just can’t forgive the conventions of theatre.
Written by Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
22 August 2009