Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is a master storyteller, charismatic and funny. We are as much in his thrall as some of the local villagers, although they are more there for the drugs he deals than the tales he weaves of giants and babies born dressed, speaking and walking.
As the local council makes efforts to evict him after complaints by residents of the encroaching estate, Mark Rylance is a primal force as Byron. A drink-sodden, drug-addled metaphor of an England which is still in contact with its pre-Christian spiritual mythology, but which is constantly being eroded by external forces, Jez Butterworth has created one of modern theatre’s most mesmeric characters.
Rylance’s towering performance does not overshadow the rest of the large ensemble, however. Byron’s hangers-on and fair weather friends, some of whom live on the estate threatening his way of life and who have signed the petition calling for his eviction, are drawn with a deft stroke of the comic pen. While Mackenzie Crook and Alan David provide the biggest laughs, Tom Brooke’s wide-eyed would-be emigré imbues the comedy scenes with a sense of realism, and the serious ones with a sense of absurdity, that leavens the whole production.
As with last year’s staging at the Royal Court, Ultz’s set design, with its towering elm trees, battered furniture and implausibly American caravan, is another character, enriching the atmosphere of Butterworth’s glorious script. And as the comedy falls away at the close of the third act, surrendering to brutal violence and a call to awaken the country’s long forgotten forces, one is left in no doubt that this a superb piece of theatre.
Apollo, London, February 10-April 24
Author: Jez Butterworth
Director: Ian Rickson
Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, Royal Court Theatre Productions and Old Vic Productions
Cast includes: Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, Alan David, Tom Brooke, Gerard Horan, Danny Kirrane
Running time: 3hrs 10mins
* Reviewed for The Stage