Gusts of national (or is it existential?) pride, fury, despair, and compassion blow through Jez Butterworth’s galvanizing drama Jerusalem, imported to Broadway from London’s Royal Court Theatre with star Mark Rylance in brilliant blaze. And the changeable emotional weather begins right away: A delicate maiden (Aimeé-Ffion Edwards), wearing a silky wood-sprite slip with fairy wings attached, steps on stage alone to sing the title anthem, poet William Blake’s sweet dream of a ”new Jerusalem” in ”England’s green and pleasant land.” (The lump-in-throat music by Hubert Parry is familiar to every British schoolchild — and every American scholar of Monty Python, too.) The nymphlike girl is interrupted — just at the famous phrase ”dark Satanic mills” — by a jackhammer blast of rock cacophony. She flees, as we glimpse wasted party people laying waste, in noise and nighttime darkness, outside a crummy mobile home.
Then daylight reality is revealed. The decrepit trailer, with its strewn wreckage, is permanently parked in a lovely bit of (as Blake put it) ”England’s Mountains Green” — specifically, in Flintock, not far from Stonehenge, nestled in verdant Wiltshire. The banged-up, limping, bellowing ruler of the kingdom and resident of the trailer is Johnny ”Rooster” Byron (Rylance), a middle-aged wreck of a local two-bit Falstaff around whom a gaggle of lost and outcast young people gather for kicks and drugs and to piss their stunted lives away. It’s St. George’s Day, tra-la, the day of the traditional Flintock Fair, and Johnny is about to be evicted from his trailer home — on public nuisance grounds, true, but also to make way for a new housing development. The Rooster’s response: ”Kiss my beggar arse, you Puritans!”
This, says playwright Jez Butterworth, is your new Jerusalem. This muddle of greatness and rot, poetry and decay, romanticism and rubbish, with woods being cleared to make way for ugliness and limping men descend from generations of fabled heroes, this is today’s England. The way Butterworth (Mojo, Parlour Song) tells it, Ian Rickson stages it, and Rylance owns it, the news is reported with a furious intelligence and exasperated tenderness that transcends the boundaries of its English content. The Broadway theatergoer leaves the show — a bubbling, never-dragging three hours that climaxes with drumbeats to summon the dead — blinking with wonderment.
Both the playwright and the production find resonance in the raves and rants of an ornery sot and his relationship to the succeeding generations of kids who use him and drop him. And much credit goes to Rylance, one of the most magnetic, fearlessly physical actors on stage today. Just as he wowed New York audiences in La Bete and Boeing Boeing, the actor uses his dense body as much as his words, this time contorting with the specific, hopping, pained hobble and the puffed-out chest of a proud, foolish, self-destructive fantasist who can’t believe that his body (or at least his bum foot) has betrayed him. (Not for nothing does Rylance thank his trainer and his chiropractor in his Playbill credits.) His Johnny is a roaring wreck (he’s got a wife who’s left him, and a young son), barred from every pub in town. Yet he’s got deep-down English pride in his battered bones. Rylance wears Johnny’s contradictions like vivid warrior paint.
Of course, all Johnny all the time would be exhausting. And Rylance’s edge stays sharp because of the cast around him. As Ginger, Johnny’s spineless current friend of longest duration, the great, gooselike Mackenzie Crook (Pirates of the Caribbean, BBC’s The Office) pinpoints the resentment so entangled with Ginger’s neediness and the dullness of his own drab life. As blobby Davey, who announces ”I’ve never much seen the point of other countries,” Danny Kirbane balances between home-country pride and insular stupidity. ‘I don’t like to go east of Wootton Bassett,” Davey says. ”Suddenly it’s Reading, then London, then before you know where you are you’re in France, then there’s just countries popping up all over. What’s that about?”
John Gallagher Jr., star of Broadway’s Spring Awakening and American Idiot (with which Jerusalem shares a milieu of drugs, destruction, and feelings its own characters can’t fully understand), leaps with typically coiled energy into the role of Lee, perhaps the most heartbreaking of all Johnny’s young hangers-on. With a next-day ticket for Australia in his pocket, swaggering Lee insists he’s happy to be blowing pokey old Flintock for good. But underneath that bravado lies lonely fear, and a sadness at leaving the deadbeat mates he loves on his way to ”other countries.”
In Jerusalem, Johnny ”Rooster” Byron is his own English Idiot. But even as the play around him triggers goose bumps, Johnny also embodies what Blake meant when he vowed, ”I will not cease from Mental Fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:/Till we have built Jerusalem,/In England’s green and pleasant land.” A
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