Watermill Theatre, Newbury – until to 21 July 2018
A heatwave in festival season, everyone’s muzzy yearning for greenwood misrule: it’s perfect timing for the dangerous, beguiling Rooster Byron to slam out of his shabby caravan once more, douse his head in the water-butt and revel in disruption and disobedience. A perfect setting too: the play born at the Royal Court, West End and Broadway nearly a decade ago finds a perfect home in the rustic-beamed Watermill. There’s bunting overhead and maypole ribbons round the pillars. Pretty and civilised though this theatre may be, when Rooster’s scruffy band enter running up the side-aisles you can believe they came from a darker, wilder, poorer rural scene.
At the end of its epic London run with the peerless Mark Rylance creating the part, I went back to decide whether – without him at its core – Jez Butterworth’s play would really last. This first revival proves it can: thanks to Lisa Blair’s unfussy direction but above all to an extraordinarily powerful, utterly complete performance by Jasper Britton.
His Rooster Byron is rough, dangerous, fascinating but never fey. He is both credible as a former daredevil biker and disgraceful provider of booze and drugs to bored rural teenagers , but shows us with finesse that beneath the grey-haired, ragged, tattooed and filthy exterior lie edges of intellectual depth, battered personal sorrow, and the curious consoling sense of underlying virtue which made Butterworth’s play so memorable.
And there is an extra fascination in seeing the author’s tough, mystical-disreputable take on rural England from the far side of his extraordinary Irish-set Ferryman, with its parallel sense (remember Aunt Maggie Far-Away) of a modern world alienated from, but needily haunted by, its dark old myths and magic.
For Rooster’s Power over the disaffected, the eccentric, the aimless teens and Peter Caulfield’s touchingly needy Ginger lies in more than drugs (though dammit, that’s topical as ‘county lines’ flourish) . His defiance of eviction notices and the law is bolstered by something older and wilder: legends, giants, earthy magic. Butterworth’s monologues for the myth-maker are notably clever in mixing banalities – canasta, motorway service areas, Nigerian traffic wardens – with giants at Stonehenge and miracle births. And with the ensemble, there’s a wonderful riff about how BBC Points West merged with Bristol – and for all they knew Belgium – and abandoned them.
These are David Goodhart’s “Somewheres”, no doubt kneejerk Brexiteers, bereaved of identity by cultural homogeneity and rural neglect. Every character stands out: Robert Fitch as Wesley the landlord under the brewery’s thumb, Natalie Walter as the ex-partner who has to fight to deny herself the ragged grey hair and bottomless black eyes of her lost but essential lover, Rebecca Lee as Tanya pleading for attention from Sam Swann’s awkward, aspiring, reluctant Lee who may never actually get that bus to a new life.
So you laugh, and shudder, and watch the gradual darkening of the picture. Ever more you sense that through the human warmth of bantering, intoxicated comradeship , in all our private woods the old werewolf is waiting. Britton’s great roaring finale stops the heart.
to 21 July. Still tickets. Go!
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