Review: Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court

Wednesday 15 July 2009

JerusalemSix hours of theatre? Three intervals? Have the Whingers lost the plot, or just watched so much theatre they can’t keep up with it?

OK so we’re conflating a little having sat through a matinée of Carrie’s War before heading trepidatiously to The Royal Court to see the epic Jerusalem.

We had been tipped off by some Good Samaritans beforehand that Jez Butterworth‘s play comes in at a staggering 3 hours 20 minutes with two intervals. Christ! We could have flown to the holy city in less time. To be honest the runes were not looking auspicious and the Whingers were on their knees praying to the God of theatre (why has he foresaken us?) to intervene with some technical problem which would necessitate the whole thing being called off and refunds given.

And do you know what? Never have 200 minutes flown by so fast, so enjoyably and accompanied by such gales of laughter.

Mark-Rylance-in-Jerusalem-bMark Rylance plays Johnny Byron – a hard-drinking part-Scheherazade, part-Pied Piper, part opinionated wastrel and part all-round scumbag who deals drugs to minors. But he does it all with limitless charm, a De Niro twinkle and a performance as hilarious as the one which won the Whingers’ hearts in Boeing Boeing.

He lives in a (too flash really) Airstream caravan in a wood (the set by Ultz features real trees – The Whingers do hope they were sustainable) near a small town in Wiltshire where – despite his status as a haven for the local teenagers and a lover of many of the local women – it appears that his time is running out. A petition against him has been signed by thousands and the local council has used its powers to call in the police to get him evicted. Significantly to Mr Butterworth’s slice of English life it’s St George’s Day and the day of the local annual fete which gets crapper every year.

Now interestingly enough Wiltshire is Phil’s county of birth and indeed he has his own tales to tell of each of the many places name-checked in the play although nobody listens.

But more importantly to the world of comedy Wiltshire is blessed with an accent which seems to be funny whatever you say in it (Sadly Phil lost his. Or sold it. Or something.).

It also features a discussion about the decline of BBC Points West (the local news programme Phil grew with), scenes of cocaine being cut with Trivial Pursuit cards (the game hadn’t even been invented in Phil’s youth) and tests Mark Rylance and cast against that old chestnut of never working with children or animals by including  a goldfish, a urinating tortoise, some chickens and a small boy (we think we saw Lenny Harvey who looked about 6 but could possibly be 11 like his role share Lewis Coppen).

Real choc ices are consumed, Rylance dunks his head in a water trough and shakes his wet hair over those in the Row A and an axe is wielded menacingly close to these bloggers (was Butterworth tipped off that the Whingers would be seated in the front row?).

On the debit side it features morris dancing.

For two of the three acts the mode is almost all relentless comedy and director Professor Ian Rickson draws shining performances from the entire and not inconsiderable ensemble which notably includes The Office graduate Mackenzie Crook (in fact, wasn’t Gareth Keenan from Wiltshire too? Swindon?). We particularly enjoyed Tom Brooke who, we note, had the misfortune to be in The Boat That Rocked and so deserves to be singled out for praise: he was wonderful as the hapless would-be emigree Lee Piper. Alan David is priceless as the vague Professor.

When the comedy stops and the violence begins it’s a bit of a shock and we have to confess that we didn’t really know what it was all about. Butterworth’s teasing juxtaposition of the mystic and the mundane (Stonehenge and custard creams) is all very well but when we were just left with the mystic the Whingers were way out of their depth.

Butterworth is a pig farmer in Somerset apparently, which may be a clue; perhaps it’s even more state-of-the-nation than it claims. Phil headed straight home to phone NHS Direct and begged for Tamiflu. But really we have no idea what it was all about.

And we didn’t much care that we didn’t understand it. To be honest, we would probably go and sit through all three hours 20 minutes of it again.

Jerusalem at Royal Court

Anyway, Rylance plays part-Scheherazade, part-Pied Piper, part opinionated wastrel, part all-round scumbag who deals drugs to minors all with limitless charm, a de Niro twinkle and as hilariously as he was in Boeing Boeing.

31 Responses to “Review: Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, Royal Court”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’d add only one thing, that it’s nice to see the Babette Langford Young Set branching out from their traditional roles as panto-season moppets to jailbait wizzheads, as only that could explain the hideous “I’m only a minor character but LOOK AT ME being unobtrusive I’M ACTING ALL THE TIME” business from Jessica Barden as Pea.

  2. Webcowgirl Says:

    Well if you do want to sit through it all again I’ll be there on August 7th, and I’m holding you personally responsible if it sucks.


  3. @ Ian: Be nice.

    @ Webcowgirl. Oh, stop calling our bluff. “Se would probably go and sit through all three hours 20 minutes of it again” is clearly a mere rhetorical device. We are relieved that the slow trickle of reviews is so far allocating four and five stars so we are not alone. Of course, it helps immensely if you’re English; more so if you’re familiar with Wiltshire. But you’ll be fine.

  4. Phaeton Says:

    Five stars from thelondonpaper today too. I had better start rootling for change in the back of the sofa…

  5. Sue Says:

    Stupid food poisoning! I should have risked it and seen the show when I had the chance (and a ticket).

  6. A Clown Says:

    Really? I was sure that you’d be twiddling your thumbs by the end. I thought it was excellently scripted, and the banter was brilliant, but there was just so much of it. I didn’t really see the need for such a bloated running time, when some judicious editing could have kept it down to a more reasonable length without losing any of the dramatic integrity.


  7. […] The Arcola is doing Ghosts, so I’ll get to add to my life count of Ibsen shows. And the West End Whingers have given me a hot tip on a new show, Jerusalem (at the Royal Court), that I’m hoping will […]

  8. shewithheofonstagexanadu Says:

    I loved it but was wondering if they were being ironic in casting Alan David (more Welsh than a rarebit) as the Professor obsessed with English History when he sounds as though his specialist subject should be Owen Glyndwr?


  9. Perhaps they should go on tour around Wiltshire after the run in Sloane Square ends. It’s not enough impressing London sophisticates like Andrew and Phil. I expect there is a National Theatre of Wiltshire. What’s needed, in the words of Wesley the landlord, is a ‘Swindon-level decision’. That’s a phrase I shall treasure and keep for use in emergencies.

  10. Rowland Says:

    Saw it last night. Amazing.

    Thought you might be interested:

    http://www.rowlandmanthorpe.com/blog/2009/07/jez-butterworths-jerusalem-a-reading-list/

    Although from the sound of it, you’ll just think I’m a bit pretentious.


  11. […] theatre trotters and pals West End Whingers have been talking about how great this play is and the Royal Court just extended its run until 22 August. Chuffed that I managed to get a […]

  12. Diana Davies Says:

    What surprised me most was the audience. I was lucky enough to get a Saturday matinee return – all performances being sold out – and I was amazed to see so many middle-income middle-aged Peter Jones-type poeple. Their enthusiastic response was a sign of hope for middle England I thought. The acting was brilliant and the set terrific. The scene where Byron addressed his cigarette lighter in the guise of the giant was a stroke of comic genius.

  13. Seepy Says:

    Incredible.
    I grew up in Wiltshire and I knew everyone of those characters.
    Im also convinced it was set in Pewsey…But then again this portrayal is common to many country towns.
    So much great detail.
    Definitely worth a watch.

  14. Vindice Says:

    I feel a campaign for the WEW coming on. Try booking online for the Royal Court and see what happens – all reasonably easy until you find 2 seats you want to book and it won’t let you as there are 3 spare seats in the row and buying 2 will leave a single seat so you cannot buy them! Phone the box office and you can buy them!!!!!! Royal Court isn’t the only thetare that this happens on their website, same problem recently with Hampstead Theatre. Can anyone explain this???? I selling 3 seats online easier than selling 1? and if so why allow it in person or on the phone but not online??? WEW your task should you chose to aceppt it…………..

  15. sarah roberts Says:

    Jerusalem is an exceptional piece of theatre. “F***ing funny”!! I loved every minute of Rylance’s performance. Yet again he proves that he is this country’s greatest theatre actor. The physicality of his performance alone was extraordinary. I could barely tear myself away from watching his reaction to everyone else. Stella line up. Crackling funny dialogue. I saw Pheodra with Helen Mirren at the National the week before and would have happily slit my wrists after 40 minutes of that dreadful over-acted, histrionic crap. This is as good as it gets. I’ve booked four tickets for Jerusalem in January because it’s 3 hours 10 minutes of my life I want to have over and over again.


  16. […] superb. The Independent says bluntly “this one you have to see“, The Whingers “would probably go and sit through all three hours 20 minutes of it again” and Life in the Cheap Seats says it “never wears out its welcome“. Book now from […]


  17. […] rejected; sometimes it’s a show I never heard of; almost always it was a show that was on the verge of becoming unattainable. It’s even better now that they have a Twitter feed: getting a line from them to “buy […]

  18. Anthony Stoll Says:

    I only just managed to get through the first act. Maybe it improves later on. It could not get worse. Pretentious, patronising and massively over-acted. So nice to be out of the theatre on the bus home. The “Archers” on Radio 4 is a hundred times more perceptive.

    • wufnik Says:

      I’m with the last commentator. Overwrought, and it makes little sense. There’s a really good idea buried in here, but it’s overwhelmed by stereotypes and lazy writing. This is a bad play, sorry, and way, way too long.


      • I know the person Rooster is based on, I live in the town it is based on, and I have the script in my hand. This is precisely the language we use. This is precisely our nature and how we act. These are not stereotypes and lazy writing.

        My only gripe? The Moonrakers is known as the moonies, not the rakers.

    • CSM Says:

      I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it! I’ve seen it twice, every bit as good the second time around! I wouldn’t think anyone has much hope of ‘understanding’ a play like that after only the first act!

      Forgive the following pretentiousness please.

      I ‘understood’ it to be a tragedy. Byron’s joyful, rebellious innocence (the dionysian), is met by the nemesis of post Christian puritanism (the appolonian) and violence in modern day England/Jerusalem. Is he defeated? Perhaps. Does he give up? NO. I loved it.

      I honestly don’t know what you could ask for in a play that isn’t here? For me, this is intellectually the equal of Euripides, as funny as almost any modern comedy.

  19. A G Brace Says:

    Anthony Stroll, I just saw the same show as you. Well, the same first act as you. I have literally no fucking clue what you’re talking about. Pretentious? Patronising? Are you cracked?


  20. […] like to run late, sprint through the streets in the rain, and settle in with a jackncoke.  Go here to read another group of blogger’s fantastic […]

  21. John Says:

    I went to see the Jeruasalem play for its last performance at the Apollo. Disappointed it tragically failed to live up to the hype. I hoped for some entertaining insight into this ‘slice of English life’. Instead the comedy was contrived, predictable and the play was way too long.

    Some of the dialogue captured the locality and added some realism to the performance. The story reflected on the main character ‘Rooster’, a loner, who faces adversity with hopeless defiance with a brand of dark humour. His caravan becomes a mecca for local ne’r do well’s and lost youth in their quest for drink, soft drugs and some purpose or helping hand. Take your pick. It could have worked but instead this play is laboured with excessive ‘Rooster’ soliloquies. The humour lacks originality. It’s formulaic, predicatable and this makes the three plus hours drag.

  22. Amanda Says:

    Absolutely it’s brilliant, and the tone of the gainsayers tells you much about why. And by the way, did you see Blake Morrison comparing it in the Guardian Review yesterday (17 July) with Jim Perrin’s bleakly beautiful and haunting WEST? Aspects of the Byronic, still alive in post-Thatcherite Britain! To the Tower with Butterworth (and Perrin) fast, before they destabilize the ruling class of Lizards-in-Sunglasses. This sort of subversive tone simply won’t do and we must stamp it out before it gathers momentum and JERUSALEM’s put on as a Royal Command performance. Torch that caravan now!


  23. […] went to see Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem in that London yesterday. As has been already noted, it’s a fine production of a wonderfully messy play. Do go and see it if you can (it’s […]


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