I shall freely admit that my trip to see Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – currently enjoying a post-Broadway return to London – was purely to see what all the fuss was about. On account of the run being completely sold out, I settled for day seats, given away each morning at 10am, for the small price of £10, and a few hours in the cold; which my iPhone informed me was somewhere around 5 degrees celsius (40 Farenheit for any U.S. readers). Getting to the theatre shortly before 8am, I realised I may already have been too late, as a queue of about 20 people snaked before me, headed by a smug group of men claiming to have been there since 5am. Indeed the box office told me 6am was the standard arrival time for a successful queuer. The gentleman behind me had already tried queuing once, as had his son; the lady behind him was there because friends told her she “must see it”, and a lady from New York told a gripping story to the group about meeting Mark Rylance (the star of the show) at a party and getting to touch his Tony (not a euphemism I assure you). Anticipation mounted, and by the time I successfully attained my pair of tickets, I was expecting some serious entertainment.
Arriving at the Apollo Theatre later that evening, I felt somewhat cheated by what I had queued for – front row balcony seats (effectively the 4th floor of a narrow but tall Edwardian theatre) which were restricted not only by low seats and a high bar in front of them, but also by lighting rigs which obstructed the view to the stage. Indeed some combination of height sickness and claustrophobia forced my plus one to relocate to a seat near the door with the usher mid way through the first act. (A regular theatre critic, you can read his glowing review here: http://www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk/jerusalem).
There is no denying that Jerusalem is slow to start. A lengthy first act appears to offer little more than a snapshot depiction of some lower class undesirables in rural England; at first, Mark Rylance’s award-winning performance was on no higher plane than David Threlfall’s continued portrayal of Frank Gallagher in Channel 4’s Shameless, and indeed that provides something of a benchmark for the kind of comedy and subject matter the play explores. His character, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is something of a social rebel; living in a caravan, defying the council and the world at large, and providing a party haven for the youths of the local town. Set across one day, we see him facing an eviction which he attempts to dodge; inevitably evoking the Dale Farm scenario. Having premiered as recently as 2009, this state-of-the-nation play is current and full of contemporary references; refreshing in the midst of the many classics the West End usually puts on. But by the time the first interval came around, I wasn’t alone in wondering just what all the fuss was about.
Then, the second and third acts open up, and the scene begins to unravel and show unexpected depth of narrative. Rooster is revealed as something of a martyr, symbolic of a lost cause, a victim of his own failed ideals. There are moments of gruesome violence, unsettling verbal abuse, and tender moments between he and his son, and with the young Phaedra which feel much more raw than theatre. The narrative is a patchwork of scenes, and the other characters only serve to assist the explosion of Rooster as a character. His plight is something which the audience must interpret for themselves – it is a task, and I have no shame in admitting it was one with which I struggled.
In spite of the immediate amazement that comes from witnessing Rylance’s memorable performance, I feel Jerusalem is a play which requires some consideration before it can be fully appreciated. It is likely a modern masterpiece, but its themes are so vast, and its implications so profound, that it is difficult to grasp even in the 3 hours 20 minutes of performance. If you enjoy modern theatre, definitely see it now; you’ll have plenty of time to think about it later.
Jerusalem runs at the Apollo Theatre, London until 14 January. Day seats are available every day at the box office at 10am.