Ruling the roost: The amateur actors who are taking on the role of Johnny 'Rooster' Byron

Jerusalem owes its success to Mark Rylance's turn as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron. But, says Tim Walker, you should see what amateur actors are doing with the role.

Tim Walker
Thursday 26 January 2012 01:00

It is one of the most celebrated plays of the 21st century, and, in Johnny "Rooster" Byron, it boasts one of modern theatre's most iconic characters. But so central was Mark Rylance's performance to the success of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, that it seems almost unthinkable for anyone else to fill the role. "I'm sure that another actor will play [Rooster]," Rylance has said, "and will play it wonderfully and differently." The play's original production, which opened at the Royal Court in July 2009, finally came off for the last time this month, following a stint on Broadway and two runs in the West End. Elsewhere in this green and pleasant land, however, amateur theatre groups have already been building their own Jerusalems, and a few brave souls have dared to step into Rooster's boots.

Thom Faulkner, a 23-year-old director from the West Midlands, says he's "pretty sure" his was the very first amateur version of the play. Faulkner studied drama at the University of Aberystwyth, and Jerusalem, which he staged at the end of August 2011, was his sixth production for the Solihull Society of Arts. "I suggested doing The Crucible by Arthur Miller," he explains, "but the group asked for something more ambitious. So I looked at my bookshelf, saw Jerusalem and thought, 'There's not a cat in hell's chance...' By pure luck, the rights had been available for about a week."

The group rehearses and performs at Alderbrook School, where the actor who took on the leading role also teaches drama. At 37, Steve Eagles is 15 years younger than Rylance; his previous parts at SSA included Jesus, in Dennis Potter's Son of Man. "That was good preparation for Rooster," he says. "They may be different religions, but they're both messiahs to their followers."

Rooster is a hyper-charismatic figure from the fringes of West Country society, who spends St George's Day at his illegal woodland encampment with a group of young friends, keen to partake of his stash of booze and drugs. The local council want to see him evicted, a local tough wants to see him dead. Rooster wants to see Olde England restored to its former glory. Eagles never saw Rylance play the role but, he recalls, "I read the reviews and thought, 'What a part'. I just crossed my fingers that I might get a crack at it one day. I played him as a kind of 'pirate-punk-Puck'. Joe Strummer of The Clash was an inspiration for me: his image and his righteous anger, but also that love of an England worth fighting for, be it London Calling or the woods of Wiltshire."

The performance rights to Butterworth's play are held by Nick Hern Books, on behalf of the writer, and they became available for licence to amateur companies when the play left London for New York last year. SSA's production, however, happened just as news broke that the show would return to the West End. "Jez Butterworth's agent tried to pull the plug," says Faulkner. "He didn't realise that the rights had been released. Luckily, Nick Hern Books got in touch with Butterworth directly, and he was more than happy for us to go ahead."

Hertfordshire's Bancroft Players, another respected amateur group, received a good luck card from Rylance himself when their version of Jerusalem premiered in Hitchin at the end of September. An experienced local turn called Keith Swainston, a gardener, played Rooster. "Keith's portrayal was full of comedy, passion and presence," recalls his director, Jonathan Brown. "To me, he had a more emotional and vulnerable edge than Rylance's Rooster." One audience member wrote to Time Out magazine to praise Swainston's performance: "I found it hard to imagine anyone other than Mark Rylance playing Johnny 'Rooster' Byron," opined Keith Knight, of Luton, "[but] Swainston nailed it in a superb production."

This week, less than a fortnight after Rylance's final performance, Bath's pre-eminent non-professional company, Next Stage, is staging Jerusalem at the city's Mission Theatre. Next Stage was also the first amateur company to produce Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials after the original National Theatre production closed in 2005. Its artistic director, Ann Garner, explains, "We try to do the kind of shows that other amateur companies wouldn't attempt. Jerusalem chimed with that philosophy: few groups would feel they had actors of the calibre necessary to carry a three-hour show, with a central figure who's on stage virtually non-stop, and has to run the gamut of emotions."

Next Stage's star, Tim Evans, is a local actor and groundsman, who, like Rooster himself, has what Garner calls "an alternative lifestyle – he doesn't own a mobile phone!" Evans has already played the Inspector in J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls, and emulated Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. "He was born to play Rooster," says Garner. "He's a wonderfully talented, charismatic actor – and ever since I got the rights a year ago he's been living and breathing Rooster, just waiting for this production to happen."

As a director, she continues, she tends to avoid seeing other productions of shows she has planned, "but I broke my own rule this time. I couldn't resist seeing Mark Rylance." Hers may, in fact, be the last amateur production of Jerusalem for some time – the amateur rights have been withdrawn again since the end of the West End run, suggesting another professional production might be in the works, or even a film version. Rights or no rights, Johnny "Rooster" Byron will undoubtedly endure.

'Jerusalem', Mission Theatre, Bath ( to 28 January

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