Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 19 February, 2010

Jez Butterworth’s play and Mark Rylance’s central performance have already garnered Critics’ Circle awards and Olivier nominations following last summer’s run at the Royal Court. I am delighted to report that both retain all their dramatic, entertaining and even spiritual power on the play’s West End transfer.
Butterworth’s relocation to the West of England a few years ago has led to his finding an assured new voice. The metropolitan (and some thought excessively Pinteresque) rhythms and shapes of his earlier plays have given way to a language less stylised but no less inventive and vital. In this tale of “Rooster” Johnny Byron, a drug-dealer and general ne’er-do-well who lives in a trailer in a Wiltshire wood and has acted as a magnet for generations of local dissolute youth, Butterworth has created not just one plum role but a whole treeful, as evidenced by a supporting cast that includes Mackenzie Crook, Tom Brooke, Alan David and Gerard Horan. As for the content, the course of one St George’s village fair-day on which Rooster is about to be evicted by the local council and constabulary serves as an armature for a seemingly infinite wealth of allusions and correspondences. Misrule and intoxication have always been part of folk rituals and traditions, so tripping teens are no less part of the fabric of England than the builders of Stonehenge. The streams cross and re-cross: Rooster recounts a tale of meeting a giant by the A14, and barman Wesley sheepishly performs a Morris dance in order to secure a wrap of wizz.
Rylance magnificently finds the elemental current running through Rooster as through the soil on which the character swaggers. He is, like nature itself, wondrous and terrible by turns or even simultaneously, and the ugly-beautiful life force that pervades Ian Rickson’s production seems to proceed from him unto all parts of the stage, even the live chickens cooped beneath his trailer. It is tempting to describe it as the role of a lifetime, but one hopes Rylance finds another such part with which to astound and enthral us. There is another temptation, to which I will succumb: a word often seen in enthusiastic quotations in front of theatres, but one which I cannot recall ever having used myself. Well, here goes: this play, this production, this performance are sensational.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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