Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron. Photo: Simon Annand

For all concerned, Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem was an unparalleled success back in 2009 at the Royal Court – its run at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs was extended due to rave reviews and sell out performances. It then transferred to the Apollo Theatre in January 2010, and on to Broadway at the Music Box Theatre for a much-talked-about season earlier this year, during which it scooped up several Tony nominations and a Best Actor award for its leading actor Mark Rylance. Now, in October 2011, the production is triumphantly returning to the West End and I strongly, strongly advise you to get hold of a ticket.

When first saw the piece in its initial run in 2009, I had some knowledge of the playwright and his long term collaborative relationship with the play’s director Ian Rickson, but aside from that, appallingly, no knowledge of the much-championed Mark Rylance, and no notion of how significant a play it was to be. I certainly had no idea that I was to see a performance that ranks among some of the most legendary of all time.

We’ve all heard stories about Olivier’s Henry V, Dench’s Lady Macbeth, Garrick’s Hamlet etc. They were – and still are – much documented and discussed, creating iconic portrayals of classic characters that the actors tackling the roles in future years could not fail to be influenced by. They were game changers of their time. Several decades on, however, these classic stage performances, which were sadly not all committed to camera for posterity, have passed into theatre folklore. They were undoubtedly significant milestones in theatre history, but are now regrettably more of a fondly received opinion of truly great acting than a moving, visceral, immediate and inspiring work, which causes one to marvel not only at the sheer craft of it, but like a seemingly impossible to rationalise magic trick, leads you to question how on earth such a thing was possible.

For young actors of my generation, no matter how well versed in theatre they may be, it’s hard to conceive of many opportunities to see such monumentally innovative work first hand – an actor at the peak of their powers, not so much playing a role but truly embodying. Yet Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron does just that, and so much so that the mere suggestion of the requirement for a suspension of disbelief is a moot point. For two and a half hours, he quite simply is this man.

Physically and vocally, Rylance is barely recognisable in this guise. He appears twice his size; some subtle changes in his posture, weight and rhythm is a lame guess at the method behind this transformation, but it’s possible that it is principally down to the character’s sheer gravitas and presence. Vocally, his West Country drawl sits so comfortably in a new lower register that it’s hard to imagine he could ever have hailed from anywhere else. This man is the real deal.

Interestingly, for those of us desperate to see the strings, Rylance doesn’t often speak about the creation of this character and the specific approaches he used. We know he agreed to play the part way back in 2003, and that the project was developed with him attached from the off. He also revealed that prior to rehearsals he spent a certain amount of time with Mickey Lay, an elderly Romany gypsy on who Rooster is reportedly based, and to whom he brilliantly gave away his Tony award after the ceremony. The rest, however, remains a mystery.

In a way, this is part of the spectacle. An actor’s methods are deeply personal, and Rylance has undoubtedly tapped in to something that has allowed him to embody this larger-than-life character in an utterly convincing way. He is perhaps comparable to Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliant, though verging on cartoonish, performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood – it may be at times almost ludicrous, but you believe every second. It’s genuinely perplexing to watch as a mere mortal; the man doesn’t appear to have any essence of an actor about him, he just looks like any crusty old guy you might spot propping up the bar in a country pub seven nights a week, buying booze for underage teenagers, enchanting and bewildering his impressionable audience with tall tales before getting chucked out at last orders.

I think I have made my point pretty exhaustively here: this is a must-see performance, and is as iconic and genre defining as any of the greats. I’ll leave you with a few words from playwright Jez Butterworth on just how intrinsic Rylance is to the success of this piece:

“As far as I’m concerned you might as well burn this script after we’ve finished with it because I don’t see how anyone else could do it as well as he does. You need to feel the charisma of a genuine eccentric, someone who gives you goose-pimples when they walk on. Mark Rylance just has all that, naturally. What he brings with him is a real fire – heat and light together. When he’s on stage, you get proper illumination.”

And isn’t illumination the one unifying state we all strive for in this business?

Jerusalem is running at the Apollo Theatre from October 2011-January 2012. For more details see its website.

Photo by Simon Annand.