To watch Mark Rylance’s performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is to see one of his generation’s finest actors at the height of his powers in his defining role. And this limited run at the Apollo Theatre is probably the last opportunity to do so.
Jerusalem is a very good play. Rylance’s performance turns it into a great production. Without him, it will not have the power it currently has. It will never again be the play it currently is.
This second transfer into the West End, via Broadway, sees a production that has evolved from its inception at the Royal Court in 2009. Perhaps it is in seeing it again, but somehow this Byron, initially at least, is not some loveable old rogue, a raffish didicoi, he is a unpredictable alcoholic who deals drugs to children. His defences of his actions seem flimsy. And with that, he loses much of the sympathy needed to carry the audience.
Rylance can turn this around. In his eye is not the ‘old words’ that Byron, as a receptacle of Old England mythology, dares others to read, but a twinkle. His Byron becomes an engrossing teller of extraordinary tales and a man who manages to contain his deep sorrow, not only beneath a fog of drink and drugs, but clothed in the youth of his acolytes and a life without ties. When he meets his end, Rylance has very much won the audience back.
There are other cast members, of course. Mackenzie Crook reprises his role as Ginger – Byron’s faithful hound of a friend and a great comic performance, but this is Rylance’s show and the rest is just dressing.