By Ollie Nelmes
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a play that demands both a boisterous energy and a delicate touch in order to negotiate the comedy and tragedy of the drama. Letterbox Productions rendition of Butterworth’s 2009 masterpiece succeeds in this negotiation, under the effective direction of Kimran Rana, as it masterfully leads the audience between moments of laughter and stunned silence. With the aid of convincing performances from the main cast, the transitions between these modes becoming some of the most touching in the performance.
The dichotomies that surround the tone of Jerusalem are also pivotal in understanding the protagonist of the play. George Tarling applies a deft hand in his portrayal of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, as he creates a character with whom we can simultaneously be sympathetic towards and yet also repulsed. Tarling crafts moments of true intimacy in his scenes with Johnny’s son Markey, played by Amy Domenghetti. Yet he also manages to create a subtly sinister quality to Johnny’s character in his interactions with the elusive Phaedra, played by Mary Lord. Through these uncomfortable scenes, paedophilia is hinted at, but only enough to create an unease that proves Johnny to be a deeply complex character. Within these ambiguities enough room for sympathy in Johnny’s character is left, enabling Tarling to completely arrest the audience with an utterly electrifying energy in his final scene.
Another performance worthy of mention is that of Johnny’s sidekick Ginger, played by Kishore Thiagarajan-Walker. There is a convincing and tragic devotion showed towards Johnny through the subtle separation shown between Ginger’s character and the rest of Johnny’s followers. A distinction demonstrated by subtle movements, such as the way that he uses his headphones as more than mere costume. It is Thiagarajan-Walker who creates one of the best comic scenes with Harry Twining’s Lee involving a coconut and a pirate’s hat, an instance of well executed physical comedy.
There are moments of great comedy from the cast as a whole, as they effectively create an organic banter in a convincing conversational setting, avoiding potentially mechanical delivery of the fantastically witty dialogue. At times, rushed delivery resulted in a few jokes being missed by the audience, although on the whole Butterworth’s wit is well deployed. Notable comic performances come from Adam Evans’ Davey who employs an effective comic timing in his repartee with the rest of Johnny’s crew of degenerates. Perfectly juxtaposed with these revellers is the wonderfully played Professor (Max Lindon) who is the perfect image of English eccentricity and a reliable source of laughs. There exists within this group of supporting characters a potential for touching drama, although at times these moments of possible drama felt underplayed with the group feeling more like a comic backdrop to the depiction of the more complex Johnny.
The set design is brilliantly striking, being lined with empty bottles of booze on proud display. To believe it is a den of drunken debauchery requires little imagination. Yet creeping into this scene of excessive inebriation there is a foliage lurking in the background which reminds us that this is a forest scene with serene natural beauty. Through this doubleness, an authentic sense of place is created which when populated with the characters and the fantastically delivered anecdotes, makes the village of Flintock feel like a real place. This authenticity is aided by a commitment from the cast towards a West Country accent which, aside from a couple of slips, was surprisingly convincing.
Letterbox Productions’ Jerusalem is a powerful production which has a well-developed use of comedy making it thoroughly entertaining whilst still retaining a dramatic depth. This dramatic depth depends strongly upon the central character of Johnny, although the strength of Tarling’s performance ensures that the production is able to provide more than simply laughs. As such, through the efforts of a strong leading man and a capable supporting cast, we are treated as an audience to a well-rounded performance which not only grabs our attention with its energy but manages to move us with its nuanced depiction of a troubled man.
Photograph: Katie O’Toole