“You don’t want to believe everything you hear, now, girls. There’s some men’ll tell you anything to get you to believe it.” That’s pretty rich coming from the manipulative mouth of champion wastrel Johnny “Rooster” Byron, who then regales his hangers-on with his most preposterous story. Revolving around this wild teller of tall tales, Jez Butterworth’s tragicomedy “Jerusalem” requires a central performance of intense charisma. With Mark Rylance in dazzling form, both the play and Ian Rickson’s production more than deliver.
Butterworth’s extravagant play (it has a cast of 14) is set outdoors on the day of a county fair in Wiltshire and is, to a degree, the obverse of his vastly weaker “Parlour Song.” But where the earlier play’s strained attempt to dramatize stifling suburbia descended into sub-Pinter — “The Lover” meets “Old Times” via “The Homecoming,” complete with ineluctable woman teasing the menfolk — the more ambitious, rural “Jerusalem” is a triumph of idiosyncrasy.
The atmospheric set by designer Ultz (enhanced by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s time-evoking lighting) presents a cluster of towering elm trees with real hens picking at the earth, forming what might in another play be a woodland glade. But idyllic notions are cheerfully contradicted by sundry detritus surrounding a giant Airstream trailer home that isn’t going anywhere.
This has long been the dwelling of Rooster, a gypsy traveler and former stunt rider determined to stay put. Part tramp, part mystic, he’s a complete maverick, a loved — and loathed — local legend who scratches a living as the purveyor of drugs, drink and parties to the fury of the local authority on the brink of evicting him.
Rooster’s home is a mecca for the feckless. It’s a stoners’ home away from home, peopled by everyone from bored and noisy local teenage girls to Mackenzie Crook’s stoned, shaggy, wannabe DJ, who is really an unemployed plasterer, and a doddery local philosopher (Alan David). The only one of the crew with any potential is Lee. Rivetingly played by lanky Tom Brooke, Lee is a happy-go-lucky smiler crippled by tiny flashes of intense fear and armed with a one-way ticket to Australia.
For much of the first of three acts, there’s perilously little action and some fairly clumsy exposition. But Butterworth’s best director, Rickson, keeps the trademark word spinning and uproarious, glee-filled, foul-mouthed character comedy bowling along.
There are, however, touches of disquiet, including the mystery of a missing 15-year-old girl who may or may not be mixed up with Rooster.
Gradually emerging through the more engaging second and third acts is what’s hinted at by the play’s St. George’s cross frontcloth. With tales of old English traditions, ancient rituals and even folk dancing, this is a kind of cluttered state-of-the-nation portrait undreamed of by the likes of polemicists such as David Hare.
Pitching swarthy, tattooed Rooster against the soulless dwellers of new housing, Butterworth examines what has been lost in a post-rural world. But he’s smart enough not to make his central character a heroic victim, keeping audiences glued by constantly reversing expectations and sympathies. Just when you think he’s romanticizing the rancid Rooster, he undercuts sentiment by revealing his selfish irresponsibility in a scene with his young son and his wife, the latter arrestingly played by Lucy Montgomery. The argument, in other words, is far from stacked, and emotional responses grow more complex as the increasingly tense evening progresses.
With the true comedian’s gift for stretching time, Rylance is simply mesmerizing in a fleshy performance, physically unrecognizable from his recent Tony-winning turn as the nervous nerd in “Boeing-Boeing.” He plays Rooster’s far-fetched, piled-high self-aggrandizement like a guitarist getting off on extended riffs.
Knocking back breakfast — a pint of milk, a raw egg, vodka and speed — or ricocheting between thundering dynamic presence and an almost impossibly balletic grace, he can rivet an audience just by the quality of his listening. Nothing he does feels premeditated. At crunch points of self-realization, he stands stock still but seems to retreat to somewhere beyond ordinary comprehension. The effect is truly disturbing.
The international success of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The History Boys” proved that Englishness sells. But the image of England that Butterworth unearths — riddled with inconsistency and resentment and riven by distinctions of wealth and class — is far less appealingly nostalgic than its predecessors, and all the more refreshing for it.