It’s the play that has been described as "the greatest British play of the [21st] century" and one of the "best plays of all time" - a decade after its first run, Jerusalem is back on in the West End.

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is set in the rural English countryside on St George’s Day, when Johnny “Rooster Byron”, a fifty-something, weathered man with a “drinker’s mug”,  is a wanted man: his son wants to be taken to the fair, council officials want to serve him an eviction notice, Troy and his gang want to beat him up, and the village youth want to share in his ample supply of drink and drugs. Johnny is a former stunt motorcyclist and mythologised figure of the fictional town of Flintock in Wiltshire; he now illegally lives in his mobile home in the forest, dealing drugs and partying with the young people of his village.

Mark Rylance (Hamlet) spectacularly reprises his role as Johnny Rooster Byron, the egotistical, morally-questionable antihero of this naturalist, realist play, and gives the performance of a lifetime. He’s joined by Mackenzie Crook (The Office UK) as Ginger, a plasterer-cum-DJ who thinks himself to be Johnny’s closest mate. Also returning is director Ian Rickson, who first brought Jerusalem to life at the Apollo back in 2010, and with whom Crook has also worked on his Royal Court production of The Seagull in the West End and on Broadway.

The play opens to Ultz’s incredibly detailed set depicting Rooster’s caravan surrounded by the remains of the previous night’s drunken revelry - empty bottles, a smashed television, upturned lawn furniture - and the dense foliage of the Wiltshire forest. The caravan, a great, lumbering metal “thing”, is adorned with gizmos and intricate details, from an air-raid siren to the (live) chicken cages. 

Jerusalem is, undeniably, extremely funny, and you simply cannot help but laugh and be drawn in by the curiously loveable, larger-than-life creation Butterworth has brought us in Johnny Byron. A born storyteller, some of the play’s best moments come from Byron’s tall tales - from how he once met a 100-foot giant by a motorway to how he is the only man in history to be conceived by parents who were “in separate postal zones” - and the animosity brought to them by Rylance’s momentous performance. Indeed, it’s impossible to think about, let alone discuss, Jerusalem or the character of Byron without relating it back to Rylance’s performance; the power of it has made his name synonymous with the unruly, yet witty, character.

At the heart of Jerusalem is the idea of national identity, and, more specifically, Englishness. Indeed, the play is rich with allusions: the St George’s flag emblazoned on the starting curtain, the play being set on St George's Day (also Shakespeare’s birthday), the name Byron (a nod to Lord Byron) and, of course, the constant reference to Blake’s Jerusalem and “England’s pleasant pastures”. The fact that times have greatly changed since the play’s writing and first performance is one which cannot be ignored, and connections between the patriotic imagery of the play and the romanticised narrative of English pride adopted by the far-right have quickly been pointed out. Some have also commented on the play’s use of sexist language and made links to the attitudes of the Brexiteers and populists to come. To comment on the political correctness of Jerusalem today seems immaterial; its dated references to the Spice Girls, Sex and the City and Chumbawamba make it clear that this is a play anchored firmly in the past, which can't be compared to the political and cultural climate of today. Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a 2009 work which goes so much deeper than the crass, shallow facade put on by its main character.

Indeed, for all his coarseness and vulgarity, Johnny is a deeply complex character. On one level, he is a delirious old alcoholic and druggie whose pathetic lifestyle means he lacks the respect of everyone except his 6-year old son Marky, but there’s something about his defiant, superhuman nature - blurring the distinction between myth and man - which is undeniably captivating. Ultimately, as the play progresses we witness the disintegration of Johnny’s world, the tone turning from triumphant to tragic, yet his strength and boldness in the face of extreme adversity in all aspects of his life, and his unwavering belief in his “Byron blood”.

My feelings towards the play are perfectly summed up by Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out), who writes that “all the endless discussion of ‘Jerusalem’ feels a bit irrelevant when you’re confronted by the elemental reality of the thing itself”. Rylance’s performance is every bit as magical as it would have been 10 years ago, and his incredible ability to present Byron as folkloric and frail is spectacularly moving to witness.

Jerusalem is virtually sold out, however new tickets are released at 10am on Mondays for the week's performances. A limited number of day-seat tickets are also available from the Apollo Theatre box office at 10am each performance morning.