Before Jerusalem, a 24-year-old Jez Butterworth electrified British theatre with a swaggering story of pill-popping Soho gangsters. Nearly two decades on, he tells Ryan Gilbey why it’s time to put it back on the jukebox
Electrifying … Andy Serkis, Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen and David Westhead in the original 1995 production of Mojo. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Theatrical monster hits of recent years don’t come much bigger than Jerusalem, which bounced from the Royal Court to the West End and on to Broadway, scooping awards and prompting all-night camp-outs for tickets. But more than a decade earlier, Jerusalem’s writer, Jez Butterworth, and director, Ian Rickson, had launched another stage phenomenon at the Royal Court.
The rock’n'roll thriller Mojo, Butterworth’s first play, was set amid the pill-popping frenzy of 1950s Soho where two gangland bosses are locked in a power struggle over the pretty young heartthrob Silver Johnny. The reviews were glowing: this paper’s Michael Billington called it “the most dazzling main-stage debut in years”, while the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer said of the first-night audience: “Everyone knew they were at the birth of something special.” Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise and Gary Oldman were in the audience, and Cruise sent a congratulatory postcard to the cast. It was the first main-stage debut at that theatre since John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956. Or so the publicity claimed. “I put that out there,” Rickson says sheepishly. “I don’t think it was true. But the spirit of it felt right.”
That electrifying 1995 production featured several rising stars: Tom Hollander, later to become Rev in the BBC sitcom, played the petulant Baby, a Hamlet-like heir to one of Soho’s crime empires; Andy Serkis – who has spent most of the past decade squeezed into a motion-capture blue-suit to play Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films – was Potts, a stooge convinced he can benefit from the teenybopper bandwagon; and Aidan Gillen, whose work in The Wire and Game of Thrones has now made him one of the guarantors of quality television, played Skinny, whose worship of Baby is his undoing. Seventeen years after its debut in summer 1995, the play is being revived by Rickson with an equally impressive cast: Ben Whishaw as Baby, Daniel Mays as Potts, Brendan Coyle of Downton Abbey as the group’s strategist, Mickey, and, making his stage debut, Rupert Grint as Potts’s speed-freak sidekick Sweets.
Rehearsals for the new version of Mojo. Photograph: Simon Annand
When I drop in to the central London rehearsal space on an autumn afternoon, Whishaw is prowling the floor looking vulpine in a black leather jacket and shaggy hair. He’s outsmarting the twitchy Mays and Grint, who are trying to distract him from the grisly secrets hidden downstage in a pair of silver dustbins. The room is filled with period props and paraphernalia, from a jukebox to an array of Tommy Steele album covers. A ping-pong table is there purely to allow the actors to let off steam after tackling the coiled dialogue, which itself has the rat-tat-tat rhythms of an Olympic-standard table-tennis match.
There are any number of reasons to revive Mojo, from the commercial (hitching a ride on the Jerusalem juggernaut) to the topical (the play’s backdrop, with powerful showbiz crooks fighting over the flesh of children, has an unsavoury tang of the Saville era, Jonathan King and the Walton Hop). For Rickson, the main incentive was to ratify the play’s standing. “I think it’s a modern classic,” he says when I join him and Butterworth during their lunch break. The director is svelte and stubble-headed; the playwright resembles a jolly bear in a flat-cap. “I just watched them do 20 minutes of act two, and it was so thrilling,” says Butterworth. “It’s brilliant to see actors get that excited.”
As if on cue, the cast members pour back in from their break and rush over to the ping-pong table for some noisy and rambunctious face-offs. “To enshrine it now as a classic it has to be about the players who are available,” observes Rickson. Though Whishaw and Grint will be the box-office draws, it is Mays who is the lynchpin of the new production. “Jez and I have adored Daniel for many years. As far as I’m concerned, there are certain actors who can speak Butterworth. It then became about whether we could build a team around him.”
Ben Whishaw as Baby in Mojo. Photograph: Simon Annand
Whishaw had played Skinny in a production of the play at Rada, and jumped at the chance to graduate to Baby. “I wanted to do it straight away,” he says softly. “We’re all still kind of figuring the play out really. Baby is damaged, but then I suppose they’re all damaged men.”
The new cast members are united in their admiration of the writing. “It’s been quite hard mastering those rhythms,” says Grint. “There’s lots of bouncing off one another, and it’s so fast-paced and charged. But it’s a lot of fun.”
“Jez was 24 when he wrote it,” exclaims Mays incredulously. “It’s got that unapologetic rawness to it: it’s someone pouring out their talent. It’s fearless.”
Butterworth was holed up with his brother and sometime co-writer Tom in a cottage in Pewsey – the Wiltshire village which later became the setting for Jerusalem – while he worked on the play in 1994. He survived for an entire year on the £1,500 that the producer André Ptaszynski had paid him to write it. “It was a wonderful time,” he sighs. “And I had such a clear idea of the story – more so than I’ve ever had of anything since. The fairytale idea I came up with right at the start: two kingdoms, two kings, both of whom are off-stage, and with Silver Johnny like a princess who gets stolen from one by the other. Then there are all the knights fighting over who’s going to take over, and you’ve got the kingdom’s rightful son, Baby, who is a bit useless. I wrote the first scene relentlessly for several months because I was trying to get the voice. Once I knew how everyone should sound, the rest came in a burst.”
Rickson was part of Stephen Daldry’s team at the Royal Court when he received a copy of Mojo. The pressure was on for the theatre to have a summer hit. “I brought Jez in, we had a read-through with six actors, and we knew straight away we were onto a winner. The dogma of the time dictated that new playwrights went in the theatre upstairs, but Mojo felt constrained there. So Stephen did the bold thing: debut, main stage, bang!”
The play was staged dynamically – it’s a claustrophobic piece punctuated by blasts of sound, light and violence – with audiences becoming especially tense during a long scene in act two in which Silver Johnny is suspended from his ankles like a carcass in an abattoir. “We’re so prepared now,” says Rickson. “This kid Tom [Rhys Harries] has been on a special diet, done hanging practice, had his retinas checked, seen an osteopath.” When I report this to Hans Matheson, who at 20 was the original Silver Johnny, he splutters. “You’re kidding? They didn’t do any of that for me! I was convinced something was going to go wrong and I’d fall and break my neck.”
Mojo was the hit the Royal Court was looking for. When the BBC suggested adapting it for cinema, Butterworth knew he wanted in. “I was 26 and I’d always wanted to be a film director,” he says. Matheson recalls visiting the playwright’s Soho flat and seeing a book called How to Make a Film. “It was there on the coffee table,” he laughs. “He must have thought, ‘I’ll get the manual.’”
But Butterworth blotted his copybook with two important people. Sam Mendes had desperately wanted Mojo to be his own cinematic debut. “Sam didn’t talk to me for years afterwards,” Butterworth admits. Then there was a controversial casting decision: for Baby, Butterworth dropped Hollander and promoted Aidan Gillen to the lead. “I imagine Tom was stung to the core. Looking back, I think it was an unbelievably cold piece of business on my part,” Butterworth says now.
Serkis and Matheson were also drafted in from the original production, and there was an important addition: Harold Pinter in an unforgettable cameo as the vulture-like paedophile gangster Sam Ross, a character feared but never seen in the stage version. “On set I was always thinking, ‘I’m sure this isn’t the most exciting thing we could be filming right now,’” says Butterworth. But the static scene in which Pinter and Matheson are scrunched together on a sofa is taut and terrifying. “That was the penultimate day of shooting, and it was the first thing that really worked.”
Hans Matheson and Harold Pinter in the film version of Mojo Photograph: Kobal
Matheson feels the same. “The film was okay. Not rubbish-rubbish. But that scene was outrageous and naughty. Jez ruined a few takes from laughing. I just couldn’t believe I was doing a scene with Harold Pinter. He wasn’t someone who took any shit. I was rehearsing a song when he was in another dressing room and he came in, rolling his sleeves up, and shouted at us: ‘Will you keep that bloody noise down?’ I thought I was about to be decked by Harold Pinter.”
At least the experience of adapting Mojo helped make up Butterworth’s mind when the offers to film Jerusalem came in. “It’s not happening,” he says decisively. Rickson concurs: “There are two people who won’t let it happen. Him and me.” The men have worked together several times between Mojo and Jerusalem, and Butterworth also has a successful career as a screenwriter and script-doctor. Revisiting Mojo, though, is something they always planned to do. “I feel there’s this demo, the 1995 version,” explains Rickson. “And now we’re going back and remastering it, trying to make it more itself. I see it now very differently: it’s an austere, savage, hilarious ritual about tribes of men under threat.” Butterworth is even more concise. “The main reason for doing it – and it’s taken me a while to work this out – is that it was a really, really good play. There aren’t that many of them around, so it’s worth doing one when you can.”
Original article found here:theguardian.com
| NOVEMBER, 4th 2013
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