My heart sank when I saw the running time for this play: another play at the Royal Court over 3 hours long. After Grasses of a Thousand Colours sucked the life out of my companion (he left after two hours) and numbed my bum unforgivably, I even thought about shifting these tickets to someone else. But upon reflection, I remembered that the playwright, Jez Butterworth, was also responsible for the excellent Parlour Song which I enjoyed hugely at the Almeida earlier this year, and so off I trotted to Sloane Square.
Jerusalem is a new play, a dark comedy, which purports to be a critical look at what it means to be English in these times and specifically explores this issue of identity in rural England. Set on St George’s Day, the central character is a man called George Byron who lives in a caravan, and who has built up a little community of sorts around him, living a life of general hedonism and with little care for traditional ideas of society. However, Byron’s easy life looks to be coming to a halt as the walls start closing in on him: his children, eviction notices and angry fathers are just some of the things he has to face up to.
The banter between the cast is excellently scripted and excellently acted. It is funny, extremely so in places, and the shared comic timing amongst the ensemble was spot on, apart from a few fumbled lines by Mackenzie Crook, but they’ll have been ironed out by the end of the previews. And this, combined with the incredibly authentic looking set, creates a great sense of atmosphere and camaraderie within the group. The humour makes the time fly by, and so there was no clock-watching, at least not for the first two hours.
However, once the more dramatic elements of the story kick in, my mind did start to wander, and I became rather keen for the final curtain to drop. The main problem for me was the unlikeability of the central character of Byron. Mark Rylance is very good and utterly convincing as the Pied Piper-of-sorts, but he is such an irresponsible waster, that I wasn’t sure whether one was meant to sympathise with him or not. Since I did not, then I had no real interest in his plight and so I left the play somewhat dissatisfied.
The play raises some interesting questions about the nature of national identity and what it means to be English, but to be fully engaged with the material, one has to connect more with the central character underpinning the whole show, and so for me, it was ultimately a little disappointing, despite the rich vein of humour running through it. And although I didn’t really notice the length of the play for the most part, I consider 3 hours and 20 minutes is still too long when the majority of that time is spent on comedic banter, which whilst entertaining was ultimately non-essential.