Review: Jerusalem

Mark Rylance rules a forest kingdom in a stunning new English play.

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  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    GOING MOBILE Rylance center, horses around with his teen posse

    GOING MOBILE Rylance center, horses around with his teen posse.

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

  • Photograph: Simon Annand

Photograph: Joan Marcus

GOING MOBILE Rylance center, horses around with his teen posse

GOING MOBILE Rylance center, horses around with his teen posse.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

"Anybody can be good in the country," scoffs Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. "There are no temptations there." Wilde's hedonistic peer never spent a boozy afternoon in the forest of Flintock, fictional burg in the southwest English county of Wiltshire. He never disported himself in the alfresco courtyard fronting the mobile home of one Johnny "Rooster" Byron, getting comatose drunk as his bantam host unfurled tall tales between puffs or sniffs of illegal substances. Rooster, corrupter of youth, grotesque fabulist, rebel squatter and city-council menace, is anything but good. Then, too, he is not purely bad. He swings puckishly between amoral branches, fashioning himself more a woodland spirit than a man bound by any law. "A Byron boy comes with three things," Rooster instructs us during one of his druggy perorations. "A cloak and dagger, and his own teeth. He comes fully equipped. He doesn't need nothing. And when he dies, he lies in the ground like a lump of granite. He don't rot. There's Byron boys buried all over this land, lying in the ground as fresh as the day they were planted."

To incarnate such a self-mythologizing roustabout, Jerusalem puts the perpetual astonishment Mark Rylance center stage, a position the actor guards with ferocity. New critical terms should be invented to explain how this actor (previously glorious in La Bte and Boeing-Boeing) transforms voice and body, the way he can underplay and overact in perfect harmony, making the most eccentric business credible and logical. He Rylances. From a calm, quiet center (unlike most actors, he rarely shouts to draw focus), Rylance's Rooster is utter cock: Swaggering—despite a limp from an injury sustained the night before—he coolly rules his decrepit demesne, infested with wasted teens and half-smoked roaches. In a mostly silent routine early on, our debauched antihero prepares his morning cocktail: He half fills a mug with milk, splashes in several jiggers of vodka, sprinkles in a baggy of speed and sluices in an egg culled from the clucking chickens beneath his trailer. All you need to know about Jez Butterworth's intoxicating play is encrypted in this emetic concoction. The mix of farm-fresh ingredients and chemical stimulants indexes Jerusalem's heady rush of pastoral lyricism and modern, toxic enhancements.

Rooster is a former Evel Knievel--type daredevil ("[a]t the Flintock Fair 1981, he died," we're solemnly told), who is maundering through a midlife fug of drink, drugs and the semicontemptuous affection of Flintock's wayward youth (chief among them John Gallagher Jr.'s outward-bound Lee and Mackenzie Crook's frustrated-DJ Ginger). Rooster is also divorced; his ex-wife (Geraldine Hughes) brings their wary six-year-old son by for a custodial visit, but this is one minor whom Rooster cannot draw into temptation.

Butterworth's play unfolds over a single day, at the end of which Rooster is meant to be forcibly evicted from his squat by enraged city officials to make room for a housing development. The three-act story of Rooster's day is a hugely satisfying tapestry woven of anarchic humor and vivid storytelling, told in an earthy, lyrical language that takes flight into the mythic. Butterworth fuses a propulsive, bumptious whole from shaggy-dog stories, town lore, rants, lists, laddish banter, songs and hymns. Besides featuring some of the liveliest stage language in years, the play also puts Broadway's dyed-in-the-wool Anglophilia to the test: It is English to the extreme, proudly regional even by London standards.

However, if you miss a bit of slang here or a place name there, not to worry: The plot is perfectly straightforward. Moreover, Jerusalem frames arguments that anyone can relate to; it is political in the most basic sense, addressing the struggle between the citizen and the city. Any society in which the most powerful systematically try to strip rights and dignity from the least powerful—and here, I think, we Americans have ceased to hear accents—can appreciate Rooster's fight to keep his scrappy plot of land. But this is a play, not a tract. Rooster is also a monster of appetite and chaos, a pusher, a harmful parent. He is mythic and deathless—or so he says. What's clear is that he uses and is used by the children who flock to him, particularly the 15-year-old Phaedra (Aime-Ffion Edwards), last year's May Queen, who has disappeared, leaving Rooster the prime suspect.

Ian Rickson's picturesque staging is a model of tightly paced realism, with necessary room for more heightened passages. At three hours, Jerusalem whizzes by, thanks to Butterworth's terrific ear and Rylance's tirelessly inventive turn as a man who seems half mortal, half imp, all theatrical god. And we worship him, even if Flintock's fairies and giants are not native to American soil. For three hours, at least, Jerusalem's "mountain green" and "pleasant pastures" lie in our backyard. Anybody who cares about thrilling, world-class drama must make the pilgrimage.

See more Theater reviews

Music Box Theatre. By Jez Butterworth. Dir. Ian Rickson. With Mark Rylance. 3hrs. Two intermissions.

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