Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

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Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Thu Dec 01, 2011 11:46 pm

Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem: a vision of Englishness I'll happily sign up to

Butterworth's England is messy, chaotic, rebellious – and above all, infused with the spirit of Shakespeare. Perfect

The English love a rebel ... Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook in Jerusalem. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

We don't like talking about Englishness, do we? It's the cultural cringe and all that. Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, much lauded and rightly so, which has just opened in the West End, is the first occasion in a long time that I've been presented with a vision of Englishness that doesn't make me want to spew.

Why is that? The play is centred around the anarchic, lovable/unlovable Johnny "Rooster" Byron, subject of a wildly charismatic performance by Mark Rylance. He lives in a grotty caravan in the woods, a nasty bit of rural slum in Wiltshire. The folk in the new estate nearby want him out. He holds court to a cast of shambolic drifters who drink his booze and buy his drugs, and who may or may not be the loyal friends they purport to be.

The English love a rebel, a non-conformist: I began to think about the levellers, the diggers, the wonderful and outre sects thrown up by the English revolution and so beautifully described in Christopher Hill's classic, The World Turned Upside Down. At the same time, Byron – fabulist, chancer, dangerous, oddly tender – seems to have some kind of indefinable connection with the land, with its ancient beating pre-Christian heart, that seems so rooted in the south-west of England. In Butterworth's play, this stuff is all the more powerful for being so lightly sketched. Personally, I have a soft spot for England's deep mythology (I read a lot of Susan Cooper books as a child). Overworked, it could all turn a little Wagnerian.

The most important reason, though, that I find Butterworth's vision of Englishness so compelling is the way it plays with other texts. The action is set on St George's Day, 23 April, and that, of course, is a thumping great clue to lead us to Shakespeare (birthday: 23 April). Byron (that name is another great big literary signpost, of course) is Falstaff to his chaotic band of hangers-on: a rogue, a dishevelled hero, a triumphant force of nature (but remember what happens to Sir John in Henry V). The wood in which he lives is a kind of Forest of Arden, where those cast out of civilisation (or, as it may be, the "new estate") can find some solace and a place to play (but there are also shades of the forest of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a troubling labyrinth in which the unwary may lose themselves). Perhaps, too, there is also a touch of the Prospero about Byron, though a Prospero infused with the spirit of Caliban.

Flawed as it is, I loved Butterworth's boldness in taking on Shakespeare, and the density and wealth of his allusions. And Shakespeare is a national symbol I have no trouble signing up to at all.

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Re: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Thu Dec 01, 2011 11:50 pm


Apollo, London

Michael Billington, Wednesday 10 February 2010 22.30 GMT

Hypnotic ... Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Jez Butterworth's play gains ­immeasurably from a second viewing. Like everyone else, I was mesmerised, on its first appearance at the Royal Court, by Mark Rylance's tremendous ­performance as Rooster Byron. But what I took to be a romantic nostalgia for a lost rural England, symbolised by the charismatic hero, is much more morally equivocal than I initially realised.

Butterworth's Byron is a born ­spellbinder: a Wiltshire Falstaff and ­ex-daredevil who dispenses drink, drugs and stories to his acolytes in the woody retreat from which he faces ­eviction. But, just as Shakespeare's Falstaff has a cruelty rarely brought out in the ­theatre, so Byron is not exactly a rustic role model. Davey, one of his ­followers, says of the people on the new estate signing anti-Byron petitions, "They've got a point though, haven't they?" And, though Butterworth clearly laments the loss of a memory of old ­England, it is significant that these hymns to "the rhythms of the earth" issue from a man higher than several kites.

Much of the greatness of Rylance's performance lies in the way he captures the twin aspects of Byron's character. He tells of meeting giants on the A14 with the relish of a natural charmer, and swaggers about his ­woodland grove like a dispossessed monarch. Yet Rylance also conveys the inner solitude of the public performer: he seems shy with his young son and even with the teenage May queen he protectively shelters.

Praise is also due to Ian ­Rickson's ­production and Ultz's design; and the play is anything but a one-man show. ­Gerard Horan as a publican, ­Mackenzie Crook as a wannabe DJ and Danny ­Kirrane as the treacherous Davey are all first-rate. As for Byron, there is great ambivalence in his portrait: he's ­hypnotic, but you wouldn't want to live near him.

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Re: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Thu Dec 01, 2011 11:57 pm

Jez Butterworth: King of Jerusalem

Well connected and blessed with a sharp wit, the English playwright is destined for recognition at the Olivier Awards this weekend

By Michael Coveney Saturday 20 March 2010, The Independent

Tomorrow's night's Olivier Awards will almost certainly see Jerusalem by 40-year-old Jez Butterworth confirmed as the best new play of the year. The occasion, whatever the outcome – Jerusalem is nominated in six categories, including best actor for Mark Rylance and best director for Ian Rickson – marks a triumphant vindication for a talented writer with an uneven track record.

His first major play, Mojo, at the Royal Court in 1995, was an absolute blast, hailed by the critics as the most dazzling main stage debut since John Osborne. A black comedy of sex, drugs and gang warfare, it evoked comparisons with David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino and Harold Pinter.

Subsequent plays, and there are only three before Jerusalem, have been greeted with respect rather than euphoria, and Butterworth has been busy developing films (of which only two have been completed). Five years ago he retreated from city life – although his agents are in Los Angeles – and relocated in Somerset with his wife, a film editor, and two young children, where he runs a smallholding and raises pigs.

When Jerusalem opened at the Royal Court last July, the acclaim was almost universal for a play that touched the national psyche in a way few plays do: it's both a celebration of a lost national culture of mop fairs and rustic riot, Arthurian legends, ley lines; and a dystopian hymn to hippiedom and civic antagonism on St George's Day deep in the Wiltshire forest.

Not least, it contains a performance by Mark Rylance – for whom the play was written – that has already entered the history of the British stage. His Johnny "Rooster" Byron, peddling drugs and parties in his mobile home, ripe for eviction by the Kennet and Avon authorities, involved with a teenage wood sprite whose angry dad comes calling, is a Falstaffian creation on a grand scale, a glorious Lord of Misrule, protest and disaffection.

When visited in the encampment by his own small son, chaperoned by his separated wife, Rooster shakes the boy by the shoulders and spells out his rules of disobedience: "School is a lie. Prison's a waste of time. Girls are wondrous. Grab your fill... Don't listen to no one and nothing but what your own heart bids. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Fight to the death. Don't give up. Show me your teeth."

No attempt is made to justify Rooster in moral or ethical terms; like Falstaff, he's hoist on his own petard, to an extent. But the tidying up of life around the edges by the nanny state is what he really objects to, and why he speaks for us. There's no allowance for excess in modern life any more. Rooster has a hilarious story (among many) about how he was kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens in Marlborough town centre: he'd got drunk and relieved himself in public, that's all.

But all the characters in Jerusalem have a quotidian richness to them, and a life and a journey, and Butterworth has said that he wanted to convey how tomorrow was going to be different for all of them. Time passing, he reckons, is his theme, not just the English countryside. It's quite unusual to care so much about every character on the stage in a big cast play. Ian Rickson, his director, concurs, revealing that Butterworth half-wrote Jerusalem nine years ago, but that "having children and animals has had a really powerful effect on his work." And Butterworth says that walking through woods by the river with a dog for five years has changed the way he writes. "It's meditative, and you get to spend a lot of time by water. That's really important."

Jez was christened Jeremy, and grew up in St Albans, Hertfordshire. He attended a local comprehensive school and then St John's, Cambridge, where the current editor of The Times, James Harding, then his contemporary, became a close friend, as he remains. He has three brothers and a sister, all in show business – Tom and John Henry are screenwriters, Steve a movie producer, and Joanna a registrar at a stage school in London.

He was a busy undergraduate actor and writer, one of his early pieces, bizarrely, being a stage adaptation of Katharine Whitehorn's recipe book Cooking in a Bedsit. The literary agent Nick Marston of Curtis Brown sent a long first draft of Mojo to the Royal Court, where Rickson shared an office with Stephen Daldry, whom he later succeeded as artistic director.

Rickson pestered Daldry into letting him do the play on the main stage, thus forging a relationship with the writer that has proved at least as profitable as other key historic Royal Court collaborations between Anthony Page and John Osborne, William Gaskill and Edward Bond, and Lindsay Anderson and David Storey. Rickson has directed every Butterworth play since.

Mojo was set in a 1958 Soho club, a world in which, one critic said, everyone is, or has an ambition to be, a horrific blend of the Sex Pistols' entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, and Ronnie Kray. There were terrific performances by Tom Hollander and Andy Serkis.

The film business was not slow to spot his potential, and after a few false starts, he directed and co-wrote with his brother Tom (other brother Steve produced) Birthday Girl (2001) starring a lustrous Nicole Kidman as a mail-order Russian bride whose "client", played by Ben Chaplin, gets more than he bargained for; innocent romcom spirals quickly into culture clash and criminality. It reminds me a bit of Martin McDonagh's brilliant In Bruges (2008); I think McDonagh's a kindred spirit, and talent, in a way.

It was seven years after Mojo before the next play arrived, The Night Heron (2002), with Ray Winstone stalking the Cambridge fenlands in a balaclava and violence breaking out among an oddball group of college servants and gardeners, with worrying rumours of satanism in the Scout movement. And after another long gap, The Winterling (2006) began to test a few critics' patience in its puzzling developments among fugitive gangsters in a derelict Dartmoor farmhouse. In addition, the references to other artists began to fly a bit too thick and fast: in Winterland, one critic detected not only shades of Pinter but also of Guy Ritchie and Withnail and I. But there was always the spiky, jazzy writing and one particularly hilarious speech about badgers bearing grudges.

There are more films in the pipe-line, one involving Sean Penn, another, Headhunters, based on a best-seller by Jules Bass about four New Jersey women snaring wealthy bachelors in the casinos of Monte Carlo, due for release soon in a co-production by Nicole Kidman, brother John Henry directing. And definitely a new stage piece for Rickson to direct after completing a short film with the playwright. But if the success of Jerusalem heralds the comeback kid, Butterworth was clearly in business with his play the year before, Parlour Song (2008), which was premiered at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York before bowing at the Almeida in Islington exactly a year ago. Presaging Jerusalem, it was a suburban show-down on the edge of a sinister, vengeful forest, in which a small-time car-wash magnate absconded with the lustful wife of his nerdy neighbour, a demolition expert with a proud catalogue of blow-ups.

In New York, critics referenced a pair of big Johns, Cheever and Updike, in their rave reviews, while here the play seemed a more jagged and spelt-out version of Pinter's dreamy Old Times, with the triangle rearranged against the distaff side. The car-wash man is a smooth sexual predator, while the comic agent of destruction tries desperately to improve his bedroom technique with an oral sex instruction course on headphones and a set of weights he can lift but not then lower: laugh? We nearly died (so did he).

Butterworth was clearly in the mood again, and Rickson says that there is something about the critical knock-backs in the past that has led him on to Jerusalem in a spirit of defiance. "Managing his work, and how it's received, has been a complex thing for him. He's more emotionally committed now than he was, so we're getting this new depth and joy in his work, as well as the trademark personal jazzy style."

The playwright is flying in from America for the awards ceremony on Sunday. He probably won't return to the West Country empty handed, and he may linger ruefully on past disappointments. But I suspect he's already thinking ahead, and making sure he's fixed the next date at the abattoir to bring some of those nice little pigs all the way home to the kitchen table.

A life in brief

Born: Jeremy Butterworth in London, March 1969.

Family: Married with two children under four; four siblings, all of whom in show business. Tom and John Henry are screenwriters; Steve is a movie producer; Joanna is registrar at Lamda, a stage school in London. His father was an economics teacher who served in the war.

Early life: Grew up on a cul-de-sac in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and attended the local comprehensive school. Aimed for Cambridge after seeing his brother, Tom, in a play there, and was accepted into St John's College to read English.

Career: Breakthrough play was Mojo, made into a film in 1997, which he directed, after the play won Olivier, Evening Standard and George Devine awards. Directed and co-wrote the film Birthday Girl in 2001; wrote The Night Heron, in 2002. Parlour Game (2008) opened in New York and then London; Jerusalem opened at the Royal Court last summer, before moving to the Apollo.

He says: "I know which one I would choose now. If you go into an empty cinema, you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in there, but if you go into an empty theatre, you could sit in there for an hour. Something has seasoned it that you don't get in cinema."

They say: "He's more emotionally committed now than he was, so we're getting this new depth and joy in his work, as well as the trademark personal jazzy style." Ian Rickson, director

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Re: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 02, 2011 12:02 am

Mark Rylance interview for Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem at the Royal Court

Mark Rylance plays the part of an opinionated eccentric in his latest role. It suits him down to the ground.

In conversation he is utterly lucid: Mark Rylance Photo: SIMON ANNAND

By Dominic Cavendish

4:32PM BST 14 Jul 2009, Daily Telegraph

Mark Rylance is one of the finest stage actors of his generation. His remarkable facility for Shakespeare, evinced from the earliest days of his award-winning career through to his trailblazing decade at the helm of the Globe (1995-2005), and attested to by none other than Al Pacino, who once said that he made Shakespeare’s words sound as if the Bard had written them for him the night before, makes him one of the enduring marvels of our theatre. Yet he is also often characterised as one of our crankiest players.

“To describe Rylance as eccentric would be an understatement: nutty as a fruitcake might be nearer the mark,” Charles Spencer of The Telegraph once declared. And there’s been ample evidence to support that claim down the years.

Rylance made headlines when his company Phoebus Cart toured The Tempest to Britain’s “sacred sites” and later turned Macbeth into the leader of a Hare Krishna-like cult in a production that required Jane Horrocks’s Lady Macbeth to pee on stage nightly.

He ran the Globe while questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and in public often says the unexpected: at an Evening Standard awards lunch he lambasted the British arms trade and, when collecting a Tony Award for his part in the hit comedy Boeing-Boeing on Broadway last year, nonplussed his audience by reciting a piece by American prose-poet Louis Jenkins as his acceptance speech.

All of which makes him a snug fit for the lead role in a boisterous new rustic comedy by Jez Butterworth, Jerusalem, opening at the Royal Court this week. Johnny Byron is a Wiltshire waster, a wild-man of the woods who also has a touch of the Pied Piper about him. Holding vagabond court at his tumbledown mobile home, he’s a drug-dealing magnet for young malcontents. Rylance, in a gipsyish array of shorts, colourful shirt, big boots and battered-looking sun hat, describes him as “an indigenous force of nature, like a dragon or a forest fire”.

Set down a lot of Rylance’s statements, baldly, on paper – a casual reference to the Mayan civilisation, say, or the writings of Rumi – and many of them would cause eyebrows to be raised in sceptical amusement. Yet the unexpected pleasure of a face-to-face encounter with the 49-year-old is that in conversation he is utterly lucid, not remotely away with the fairies. In performance, he is often softly spoken, boyishly vulnerable, wavering. In person, he conducts himself in a more down-to-earth and direct fashion.

“Jerusalem deals with ideas that are definitely inflaming me at the moment,” he explains, during a rehearsal break. “The profit motive of corporations, the way the landscape is being made ever blander – these things are a horror to me. We’re facing difficult questions: how can the individual survive within these 'communities’ that are being worked into our society? Can you be an individual when you’re on a motorway or in a Tesco store?

“The play is about how young people get caged into new estates with the prospects of soulless, nature-less working lives ahead of them. Johnny Byron is a useful way out for those young people but he’s also got a wild, reckless side to him – some audiences might well be horrified by him.”

Does it bother him that he gets labelled an eccentric? He laughs. “Can a person be too eccentric, given the present state of lunacy on the planet?” He points out that he’s a Capricorn: “I’m a goat – very stubborn. My wife [the composer and musician Claire van Kampen] is surprised by how much I love washing up dishes. I also like to build things!”

Born in Kent, the eldest son of two English teachers, he grew up in Connecticut, then Wisconsin, when his father was made head of a Milwaukee preparatory school. It’s not hard to conclude – and he confirms it – that he would have felt like an outsider in both countries.

“That’s true but it’s in my nature, too,” he says. “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.”

Rylance will for ever – or at least, so long as people still venerate Shakespeare in this country – be remembered as the actor who got the replica Globe up and running, and with a quality of artistic integrity that silenced the nay-sayers who predicted only the triumph of theme-park kitsch.

Does he go back there? Does he miss the place? Yes and no. “It was a great grief to go, but also a relief,” he says. “Eventually the job overwhelmed me. I had moments when I saw the success of it but mostly I couldn’t. I left because I had disagreements with the board about the general direction of the centre but to be fair, I was 10 years into it. I got tired and I was starting to make mistakes. So it was a good thing I stepped down when I did.”

Oddly enough it was at the Globe that the seeds of this current project were first planted, through a larky friendship between him and Ian Rickson, then the Royal Court’s artistic director (and Butterworth’s favoured director). “I used to invite him down to play ball-games in the Globe late at night. We had a weird game called 'yard ball’. He would bring his crew down. I would call him Lord Chelsea – he would call me Lord Southwark and we’d have battles.”

Does that sound cranky?

Others might see it as a rather astute, unblemished form of networking: “I must have said how much I liked Jez’s plays because he sent me an early draft of this play back in about 2003, asking me whether I’d do it. I said yes straightaway.”

According to Butterworth, Rylance’s enthusiasm was instrumental in prompting him to develop the script further, to the extent that he now can’t conceive of anyone else in the role. “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,” he says. “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.”

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Re: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Fri Dec 02, 2011 12:07 am

Jerusalem wins high praise on Broadway

Jez Butterworth's play, set in Wiltshire woodland and rooted in rural Englishness, is likely to become a smash hit in America

Maev Kennedy, Friday 22 April 2011 22.07 BST

Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem, set in rural England. It could be a hit at Broadway's Music Box, in New York. Photograph: Geraint Lewis / Rex Features

Hang out the red-cross flags, round up the morris dancers: a play so rooted in rural Englishness that some feared it might need subtitles even for Londoners looks likely to be a smash hit on Broadway. Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, a transfer of the Royal Court production, has received a rave review in the New York Times which reads like a publicist's dream.

Although the newspaper's reviews are seen as deal-breakers for Broadway, its write-up has proved only part of a roar of critical acclaim for the show.

Entertainment Weekly said "Jerusalem triggers goosebumps", and New York Time Out wrote: "Anyone who cares about thrilling, world-class theatre must see Jerusalem."

Audience members were equally overwhelmed; tweets about the show include: "Go worship at the feet of Mr. Rylance. Run don't walk"; "Mark Rylance in Jerusalem is probably the best stage performance I have ever witnessed"; "grand scale theater, mark rylance a force of nature"; and "a thrilling, mind-blowing, gorgeous reminder of why theatre rocks harder than anything else".

Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court, was overwhelmed at the news. "We could never have predicted when Jerusalem opened in 2009 that it would go on such an incredible journey, from the Royal Court to the West End to Broadway," he said.

"Jez's play has captured people's hearts, and we are just thrilled for … the whole Jerusalem team that it has translated to Broadway so well."

The play, with echoes of Shakespeare's greenwood comedies, where social norms are ripped to shreds, is set in a Wiltshire woodland where Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a swaggering, mesmerising and thoroughly unreliable dropout holds a druggy, drink-sodden and anarchic court. A Prince Hal for outcasts and Glastonbury new agers, well beyond the fringes of Middle England decencies, he defiantly claims his share of Englishness.

Although the Royal Court production proved a sellout hit in London – Michael Billington called it "a perfectly judged production" in his Guardian review – and swept up awards by the armful, many worried that the play, set on St George's Day, might prove baffling to an American audience. It would be a foreign-language play even in Berkshire: "I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop", as one of the characters remarks.

Billed as "a comic contemporary vision of rural life in England's green and pleasant land", the transfer to Broadway's Music Box, with half the original cast (including Mark Rylance as Rooster and Mackenzie Crook as his sidekick), looks likely to be the hit of the season, in a run currently due to end in July.

In his New York Times review of Jerusalem – headed "This Blessed Plot, This Trailer, This England" – Ben Brantley, who also gave the play a rave review when it opened in London, admitted he had had doubts about the transfer.

"I was apprehensive about the show on Broadway. Jerusalem, you see, is partly a state-of-the-nation play, the nation being Britain. And the mind-set of its characters is definitely British provincial, or as provincial as the age of television and the internet allows. Yet the New York production – which retains half its original British cast and has been revised for clarity of cultural references – turns out to be rousingly accessible on these shores."

Butterworth, whose earlier play Parlour Song was also a New York hit in 2008, credited his reincarnation as a Somerset pig farmer as the inspiration for his recent string of hit plays. He told Mark Lawson: "I think the problem was that, when I lived in London, I was just too distracted. Looking back, I spent a lot of time sitting in pubs when I should have been perfecting my playwriting."

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Re: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem

Post  eddie on Sun Jan 15, 2012 6:37 pm

Jerusalem fans queue all night as the final curtain comes down

Star Mark Rylance offers hope for those who missed hit play on both side of the Atlantic suggesting a return 'in five or 10 years'

Mark Brown, arts correspondent, Friday 13 January 2012 22.00 GMT

Jerusalem fans wait outside the Apollo theatre in London in hope for return tickets for matinee performance of the play. Photograph: Frank Baron/The Guardian

There have rarely been scenes like it: people queueing for up to 24 hours without sleep through a desperately cold night to get tickets to a serious, thought-provoking and lengthy West End play that addresses a myriad of issues about England, society and how we should live our lives.

The play is Jerusalem, a production that seems to have united almost everyone who has seen it – left and right, young and old – in praise approaching religious fervour. It ends its run on Saturday after 394 performances over nearly three years. Almost 300,000 people will have seen it in the West End, on Broadway, or during its initial run at London's Royal Court.

But for those who did not see it, the play's star, Mark Rylance, offered hope. He told the Guardian: "I don't think that's it for me and the play. I would hope that I can come back and play it again in five or 10 years, give it a period of rest and then if the play still inspires production and they still want me, I'd be thrilled to play it again with five or six years of life experience."

Jerusalem, written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Ian Rickson, has got audiences talking about big subjects – Englishness, change, authority, life. Rylance has his own theories on why it resonates: "The general story that people are told about the meaning of life at the moment is all logical and scientific and rational and economic … You have to spend every minute of your day paying your bills and thinking about them."

Jerusalem offered something more, he said. "People are starving for deeper meaning and deeper stories in life because the church isn't really answering that any more. People are hungry for something in life to have more depth or sensation than the story they're told they have to worry about all the time."

It is Rylance's Tony and Olivier award-winning performance as Rooster Byron, a loud, anarchic Pied Piper of lost causes, which stands out.

He said he had always liked people like Rooster. "I know that they can turn on you and I know that you can sink if you try and swim along with them, but I like people like that a lot. I'd be horrified if society cleared out those people which I think in certain parts of England, and certainly America, those people have been cleared out. Much like indigenous people have been cleared out."

As Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court, says: "It's about society's relationship to the outsider and society's need to destroy the outsider."

Rylance said he was thrilled by the reaction and the astonishing queues, which Time Out labelled as the 'Occupy Jerusalem' movement. "I've never experienced anything like it," said the actor, who has been chatting with the queuers at midnight all week, offering a gift of whisky one night.

On Thursday, the first queuer arrived at 2.50pm to be there for the 10am opening of the box office. On Friday the first was there at 10.30am.

On Wednesday morning, the queue snaked all around to the back of the theatre and was a friendly, diverse crowd headed by superfan Nigel Asije, a 24-year-old media student who travelled from Brighton to be first absurdly early - 6.40pm the previous night. "I feel good, I feel ready," he said looking admirably perky after nearly 15 hours camped on Shaftesbury Avenue with no sleep. "This will be my ninth time. I've been saying to others in the queue that it's like nothing you'll ever see in the West End. It's almost an anomaly, in that we're surrounded by all these traditional productions and then there is this which stands out like a sore thumb. It's so honest and the performances by the entire cast are just tremendous. Every time I see it, it's like I'm seeing it for the first time."

Asije chats nerdily about the tiny things that change in each production. " If this was running longer I'd see it another 10 times."

Behind him are friends Edd Bird, 18, who works at a nearby theatre, and Alex Naylor, 20, a fine arts student. "We heard it was closing and there's been such a hype," said Bird. "I think the queueing adds to the experience."

Both said they enjoyed their night. "I expected to be sat on the street bored and frozen and miserable," said Naylor. "But it's been really lovely, really friendly – we all queue nicely."

Further back, Ros Barber, a writer from Brighton about to have her first novel published, is counting the numbers nervously, unsure of whether she'll get a pair of evening tickets for her and her husband even though she arrived at 2.30am.

Despite that, her spirits are high. "It is the best queue I've ever been in, there is a real camaraderie. We've had a guitar and a fiddle since four."

Barber said she had seen the play once already, and been reduced to tears. "It blew me away. I'd heard a lot about it and thought it could be hyped, that it could be disappointing, but it wasn't.

"It is about what it is to be English right now but it has these roots back through every idea of Englishness that we've had. All of the cast are fantastic, but Mark Rylance is stunning, just stunning. The whole thing feels very magical and you laugh a lot but I cried buckets as well."

But isn't queuing through the night to see a play slightly unhinged? "Anyone who hasn't made an effort to see this show is unhinged."

The diversity of the audiences has been noteworthy. You've been as likely to see a Tory peer in the audience as an Occupy protestor. Since it transferred to the West End, famous names in audience have gone from Bob Dylan to Gary Lineker.

Rickson, the play's director, said: "I feel thrilled that a new play that emerged from the subsidised culture – which is under threat – should be such a rock'n'roll event. But I also feel sorry for the people getting cold at night."

He said he had no idea it would become so big. "I had a good feeling about one thing which was the spirit the playwright was channelling and something about that defiance and energy felt very rousing.

"The play is a rousing cry for a connection to the land and community. It is a spirit of defiance which we've really got to hold on to."

Rickson said he was looking forward to Saturday night and had been giving notes to the company as late as last Monday. "The play is about time and things moving on, which will be a powerful environment to watch the final performance in."

Back in the queue and guaranteed tickets was Adrian Hau, who admitted he had no idea what the play was about. He was unashamedly following the hype and advice from friends.

"It's not just that they're saying it's good, they're saying this is the most incredible thing you'll ever see," he said. "It had better be good."

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