On a rather grim morning in which Rufus Norris raised serious fears about the survival of the British theatre industry as we know it, there was a glimmer of good news: Sonia Friedman Productions tweeted a moderately cryptic tweet strongly suggesting that Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the greatest British theatre production of the 21st century, would be returning next year.
An hour later any mystery was cleared up: a second tweet clarified that the original production of Jerusalem would return for 2021, its revival directed by Ian Rickson and most crucially, it would star Mark Rylance as shamanic reprobate Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.
’It feels like a promise that maybe good things can happen, that maybe we can have nice things’
There are many trite things that could greet the news of Jerusalem’s return during theatre’s bleakest hour in decades. It’s certainly cheered me up a bit, even if the path from here to sitting in a packed West End theatre (presumably) seems pretty difficult to imagine right now.
Still, I’m delighted – almost regardless of whether I see it – because I’ve been obsessed with the possibility of Jerusalem’s return almost since it was last on our stages in 2011. I did see it once, on its third and (hitherto) final London run, and yes, it is amazing, and yes, Rylance’s astonishing final speech as Rooster is the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre… less acting, more magic, a human vortex swallowing time and space. Demand for tickets vastly outstripped supply, with hysterical stories of people queuing for two days to secure seats at the final show.
What’s perhaps haunted me since is that in interviewing all the major parties for subsequent projects – Butterworth, Rylance, Friedman – all have been totally up for bringing it back, but have all, understandably, been busy.
Jerusalem is a wonderful thing, that could exist again, but largely through goodwill: yes, there’s money in it for all involved, but it’s likely to be a limited run in a modestly sized theatre. Most reunions take place because the artists are down on their luck – this has to exist because a group of immensely successful people are willing to put everything else on hold to make it happen.
And conversely, it has to exist in contention with its own legend: to return to Jerusalem is to subject it to scrutiny once more, for the creatives to compete with their younger selves.
There will be questions about who gets a ticket and how they are priced, about the play’s whiteness and maleness and, of course, Englishness. Will it be filmed for broadcast at long last? Or would that be tampering with its myth? We don’t really know what world it will be reopening into.
Still, right now, in the murky depths of lockdown, the fact of Jerusalem coming back almost seems more important than the issue of whether or not we can get a ticket. It feels like a promise that maybe good things can happen, that maybe we can have nice things, or will do again one day. Come, you giants!