Here's Johnny! Rylance to reprise best-known role

Johnny 'Rooster' Byron (aka Mark Rylance), the beguiling waster of 'Jerusalem', will prove to be one of the great modern roles. Now he's back and he's not to be missed. Mike Higgins on a true one-off
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The Independent Culture

On 17 October, the first West End revival of Jerusalem will hold its press night. What is traditionally a trial for any play will, in the case of Jez Butterworth's rowdy paean to English non-conformism, be a triumphant homecoming from Broadway for a play as English as the A303 and a Bank Holiday punch-up. And for that we have to raise a can of cheap cider to Johnny "Rooster" Byron, the pill-popping philosopher anti-hero of Jerusalem, and the equally mercurial actor who will bring him to swaggering life, Mark Rylance.

It's hard to imagine anyone who has seen Rylance's turn as Byron not swooning, as the critics did in uniformly judging it the performance of the decade. In the play, Byron is a drug-dealing waster, gone to ground in a caravan in a Wiltshire wood, who finally realises, one scorching St George's Day, that the forces of bureaucratic UK plc and its crushed denizens have him cornered.

Byron beguiles, cheats, intoxicates and seduces his way through the play, with a bag of cocaine and a headful of English myth and lore. Butterworth wrote the part with Rylance in mind, and it has become the totemic performance of British theatre this century so far. Who will dare step into Rylance's scraggy army surplus boots when, eventually, he and Byron part company?

But it's not just a case of the actor bringing the role to life; Rooster, you could say, has brought the best out of Rylance. Three years ago, he had still not quite found his way in the wake of his testy departure from the Globe Theatre, and the producers of Boeing-Boeing had to fight to retain Rylance in his role for the transfer of the farce to Broadway. He went on to win a Tony for that performance. This year he won another for Jerusalem, a play that few thought would be intelligible in America, let alone a Broadway hit.

The surprising aspect of the 51-year-old's success is that he appears to be loving it and inviting the obvious, if irresistible, comparisons between himself and the character he will for ever be identified with. Anyone who caught Rylance on Newsnight last week, in cut-off denim shorts and twinkling away with a faint West Country burr, might have thought Rooster had turned up: "You don't have to believe in the Mayan prophecies to realise the way we're living isn't really sustainable," he said, trying to explain the success of Jerusalem. "We all have a bit of Rooster, we all live in a kind of wood, we're all aware that it isn't going to last for very long."

Rylance, unlike his Rada classmate Kenneth Branagh and other peers, has consistently brought some mischief into the theatrical establishment. Towards the end of a stratospheric rise at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Eighties he began to make known his views that William Shakespeare could not have written the plays and sonnets attributed to him. Throughout his decade-long tenure as the founding artistic director of the Globe, this rankled with his superiors. Indeed, for some, his views were tantamount to a kind of Holocaust denial. (Later this month, he will appear in the film Anonymous, which turns the question of Shakespeare authorship into a rather unlikely blockbuster period thriller.) All, though, acknowledge that his extraordinary gift for live performance and his feel for spoken verse contributed to the popular success of the Globe project, which receives no public subsidy. (At one point, Rylance even forced critics to pay for their seats.)

Johnny Byron's green man hi-jinks find a clear echo in Rylance, who has long been an enthusiast for English mysticism. Twenty years ago, he and his wife, Claire van Kampen, established their Phoebus Cart company to put on Shakespeare productions at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and at Corfe Castle in Dorset. He's also known to be fascinated by crop circles.

It is 18 months since Rylance last brought Byron to life on the English stage and, thanks to the riots and the economic crisis, the character feels still more timely. Perhaps Rylance feels that the play may even prompt its audiences to action. Until, then, let's leave the last word to Johnny: "If you want my advice: stick to the cider, Get some cake in you around four. Keep your trousers on, and if you break any bones, or piss yourself, it's over."

'Jerusalem' previews from Saturday at the Apollo Theatre, W1

In his own words

"There's a part of me that's quite spiritual and a part of me that's quite earthy. Soulful people and soulful works of art are often the ones that are trying to mediate between the two."

"I don't feel my inspiration comes from me... I have to learn my lines and do some work preparing, but I don't feel my ideas are self-generated. Often, during the performance, the ideas and the humour just come in from somewhere else."

"I think I'm going to get some tattoos of crop circles. Proper ones: inked in. They are such beautiful designs and it's a total mystery where the majority of them come from. So when the crop-circle makers land I want them to recognise me as one of them. They will take me off in their spaceship to make crop circles."

"Sometimes I feel very happy and exhilarated, and sometimes I'm in the other place. Confused."

"I've always been someone who, if you say: 'There's the fence, don't go beyond it', I try to do just that. I am drawn like a moth to a flame to mystery, to things I can't explain."

"Partly from studying tribal people, I feel that I'm part of the whole of existence; not just human, but plant, animal – the whole thing. It seems to me that less fortunate people feel the need to abuse and suppress others. They are more likely to live out their lives from a place of pain and anger and hatred. Those of us who are more fortunate need to practise acts of kindness and connection to balance that out."

"The relationship between people and money is not something I and business people are going to agree about."

"I don't go to Shakespeare much now. I think, 'What's the point?' I just don't see the sense of it."

"Undoubtedly the Stratford actor [Shakespeare] is involved in the creation of the plays but I have not seen a convincing argument that he was capable of writing [them]."

"I'd rather money was spent on theatre than bombs."

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