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Judith Elliott

Jez Butterworth
Apollo Theatre, London, until 24 April


The first thing you hear when you arrive for a performance of Jez Butterworth's new play is Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Surely ironic, you think. Butterworth's vision of the countryside is not that of gently rolling Cotswold hills, Agas, scrubbed pine kitchen tables and Range Rovers. We know that from previous work such as The Night Heron, set in bleak Fenland country, and Parlour Song, depicting life on a dour housing estate at the edge of a country town. This time the situation is reversed, with the housing estate just offstage, but its baleful influence casts a powerful spell over the action. Not many larks ascending round here then. But by the end of Jerusalem I realised I was quite wrong: no irony here, just a loving and passionate hymn to rural England, or what's left of it.

The first character we meet is Perdita, the lost child, with all the Shakespearean references she brings with her from The Winter's Tale. Shakespeare is ever-present throughout this play. Perdita stands alone on a bare stage, singing with great beauty Parry's 'Jerusalem'. What follows is one of the most startling coups de theatre I have ever seen, which would be quite unfair to reveal. Somehow on the other side of it we find ourselves in a breathtakingly lovely set of real trees swaying in a gentle breeze. In the middle, not quite so beautiful, is a massive chrome caravan - the sort that might have come from an 1950s US trailer park.

We learn from two council officials taping an eviction notice to its door that this is the home of 'Rooster' Byron, wild man of the woods, someone high on their hit list, after numerous complaints from the nearby housing estate.
We soon find out why the council is so alarmed. When he bursts on the scene, all muscle and tattoos, you can see instantly how Mark Rylance has won every award going for his portrayal of Rooster. It's a performance of mesmerising power. We meet Rooster the morning after one of his notorious raves, and the inevitable hangover is cured by plunging his head into a barrel of icy water followed by a pint of milk, ale and vodka mixed with a raw egg, downed in one. This is just about as impressive a feat as I've ever witnessed on a London stage, even with non-alcoholic replacements (I assume) for the ale and vodka.

Gradually Rooster's acolytes appear, from the depths of various old sofas and chairs - all young, all adoring.  More Shakespearean references: Rooster is a Falstaffian figure, surrounded by his motley crew of present-day Bardolphs and Pistols. All are, like us, irresistibly drawn to him, with his strength, humour, manic energy and, most of all, his burning passion for a rural England long gone: an England without eviction notices, CCTV cameras and officious, politically correct local councils. The ancient and magical English landscape, with its myths and legends of heroes and heroic deeds, is the breath of life to Rooster.

But just before we get too carried away with his charisma, Butterworth introduces an uncomfortable note: Rooster is a drug-dealer. He supplies these innocent and vulnerable young people who depend on him so much with cocaine, ecstasy and copious amounts of alcohol. Butterworth offers us this fact in a completely non-judgmental way. The audience can make of it what it will, and it does cause considerable unease. But Rooster says these young people are safe with him - and in a way this is true. They can sleep safe in his enchanted forest, without fear of sexual abuse or violence, although their - and his - enjoyment of the lines of coke he supplies does make you shift uncomfortably in your seat. But before too long the reality of the danger he protects them from is all too apparent: Perdita, the 'lost' child, is dragged off by her abusive step-father. It is not too difficult to guess her fate.

All too soon Rooster's eviction is imminent and the forces of death and destruction are hovering around him. In an astonishingly powerful scene he makes one last stand as local council officers and police close in. He has a drum which he believes has magical powers, and as he beats it in ever louder and more complex rhythms, he evokes the old pagan gods of ancient Briton to curse his enemies and protect England's mountains green. Does he succeed in keeping his enemies at bay? It would be as unfair to reveal the ending of this remarkable and moving play as it would be to reveal its beginning - just go and find out. You won't regret it.

Judith Elliott