Playwright Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, title to one side, is a seriously pagan play. Drawing its title from a hymn based on a mystic poem by British poet William Blake, Jerusalem takes place in the woods of South West England, where Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance), a middle aged former daredevil motorcyclist and modern-day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials from town serve his rural trailer an eviction notice, while a motley crew of friends, mostly very young but ranging up in age to an elderly, visionary English professor, continue to consume his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.
The show opens with a little fairy singing Blake’s odd yet patriotic hymn, interrupted by a blast of lights and dance music reminiscent of English raves. That opening is pregnant with signifiers of everything that follows – Rooster’s deep roots in the land, his Dionysian hard-partying ways (which is what brings all the kids to his trailer) and hints of powerful magic in this charismatic, limping gypsy. He tells stories that are too supernatural and just plain crazy to be true and then produces what appears to be physical evidence.
Mark Rylance (Boeing Boeing, La Bête) proves once again that he is one of the English-speaking world’s greatest actors, this time in a role that, while wildly funny, goes way beyond comedy. Rylance is well served by his taste for parts that have fireworks built into them that he is uniquely suited to exploit. Rooster is beyond Shakespearean, he’s something out of myth or legend, while also being just a broken-down sodden bloke.
Jerusalem also owes a great deal to those raves mentioned above, even though that opening salvo is as boogie-down as the evening gets. English raves have reconnected whole generations, not only with the outlaw spirit of English heroes, but with the deeply weird druidic magic of the English countryside. That trancey dancing spirit definitely courses through this play’s veins. In fact, Jerusalem gets most bogged down when trying to show us the more ordinary parts of Rooster’s life. With a tapestry this vivid, we only need a little bit of neutral for a background, and there’s at least an unnecessary half-hour of kitchen-sink drama in the play.
With this, Rylance is the man to beat for the Tony, and the play itself is one of the more gleefully baroque pleasures to hit Broadway in quite some time. Not necessarily everybody’s cup of tea, but I loved it!
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