This is a hard play to review.

Jez Butterworth’s somewhat sprawling 3-hour epic, revolving around green man/troll/drug dealer Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, is really bloody ambitious. The original Royal Court production transferred to the West End and Broadway and then back, received rave reviews and won Mark Rylance a Tony for his portrayal of the lead role. The script calls for a forest, a caravan, a goldfish, a tortoise, cocaine, booze, and live morris dancing. Director Al Gillespie, skilled veteran though he is, had his hands full.

Strong visuals are the trademark of Gillespie’s directing work (Doctor Faustus, Equus, Constellations) and this is no exception. An imposing graffiti’d tent stood in for Rooster Byron’s home, and swathes of fabric represented the trees of his native wood. The stage, though painted nothing like a forest floor, lay gloriously strewn with eggs, bottles, trash cans, and a tv, which Byron smashes to pieces with a cricket bat in a beautiful opening montage, egged on by an entourage of teenage revelers.

Jerusalem.
Image: Al Gillespie.

Not enough to take on a difficult script in St Andrews’ largest theatre venue, Gillespie decided to make his job all the more difficult by cross-casting women in a number of the lead male roles. Understandable: dearth of male actors + difficult script + surplus of gifted female actors…logical solution. Unfortunately, this is where problems started to creep in.

Helena Jacques’ Morton’s Ginger was an acting masterclass: addictive to watch and impeccably costumed, with truly flawless comic timing and just enough of the tragedy that lurks in the heart of this play. Hannah Ayesha Ritchie’s Rooster is proud, cripplingly sad, and though somewhat inconsistent, she warms up to the character such that by his third hour Byron is a tour-de-force, strong and spitting as his world closes in around him, with far less of Ritchie showing through than before.

This slight inconsistency from Ritchie may have been down to direction because similar lapses in swagger and laddishness came from Eleanor Burke’s Lee and Eilidh Mackinnon’s Troy: while their performances were energetic, their lapses in masculinity distracted from the world of the play. This was not helped by costume choices or make-up, which unfortunately rather highlighted the feminine features they seemed to be trying to cover, (though this was strangely not the case with Jacques-Morton’s costume or make-up). Roles such as these demand a lot from an actor physically, mentally, and especially vocally, and maybe a student director just doesn’t yet have the tools with which to hone all of these skills in his actors.

Other revelers (Sarah Chamberlain, Miles Hurley, and Valentine Moscovici) performed with an infectious sense of fun, and huge amounts of confidence (one particularly ballsy moment comes to mind…), but Sebastian Allum’s professor, though lovely and laughable, threw away some of the tragedy and mystery of the role, and Annabel Steele was woefully under-utilised in her small role as Dawn.

Olli Gilford’s performance as Wesley was quite breathtaking: his buffoonery, tenderness, and pathos were endearing, familiar, and heartbreaking by turns, and came as quite a shock. I only wish we’d been given a little longer to enjoy his morris dancing.

Jerusalem.
Image: Al Gillespie.

Aside from the opening rave scene, which had beams from moving heads shining through a thick haze, technical design by Grace Cowie was simple and effective, with a simple wash, some fairy lights, and impeccably-timed lx cues. Although I wasn’t sure of the motivations for having Phaedra (Caitlin Morris) singing downstage in front of the curtain (surely her character is never fully outside the world of the play?) these bare moments with Morris alone, picked out by a follow spot, were very nice.

Sound design, although perfectly cued, was a little lacking, and onstage diegetic speakers would have made a considerable difference to the fluency and cohesion of the show.

Despite its occasional lapses in characterisation and fluency, Jerusalem was incredibly visually striking, with some unforgettable performances, and its sheer scale pushed the boundaries of what a Mermaids play can be. Act 1 was exciting, Act 2 dragged, but Act 3 was spell-binding. The ambition of this production is to be lauded, and I cannot wait to see where Hannah Raymond-Cox (Fawcett), Helena Jacques-Morton, and above all director Al Gillespie, go next, after this final show in St Andrews.

***

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