Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a wild and crazy thing, comic and fierce, merry and smutty, three hours of not-to-be-missed riot. A huge hit in London, it comes to Broadway in that production as directed by Ian Hickson, with about half the original cast and starring the great Mark Rylance, who can do everything and packs every bit of it, from cool to rollicking, into his bravura performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron–something to crow about.
Johnny is a drug dealer to the disaffected provincial young, living in a whimsical trailer marked Waterloo in the middle of an English wood in a space about to be appropriated for cheap housing by the New Estate. The scene is a glorified garbage dump with derelict furniture—broken-down couch, car seat, swing, table loaded with god-knows-what—a chicken coop, chopped wood under a lean-to, a hand-cranked air raid siren on the trailer roof, a klaxon, and more rubbish, featuring remains of a smashed television set down center.
The mostly young people who gather around Johnny are in similar disarray. He himself has been all sorts of things, chiefly an Evil Knievel-like daredevil, married womanizer, rebel against law and—especially—order. But he is also a wit, a surrogate father to the young addicts, himself drinking and doing drugs on this Saint George’s Day, with the stentorian sounds of the annual fair of tiny Flintock , Wiltshire, honoring (or is it dishonoring?) England’s patron saint, occasionally infiltrating the stage. It is also the beginning of a madcap spring.
Each of three acts is introduced by fifteen-year-old runaway Phaedra, in winged fairy costume, singing the Hubert Parry hymn set to William Blake’s famous “Jerusalem,” almost the national anthem, about building “Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land.” Which is hardly the case at the fair with such attractions as throwing a sponge at the mayor’s wife, or in front of Rooster’s trailer, where obscenities are hurled at bourgeois values.
So here we have Ginger, a befuddled boon companion of Johnny’s, who fancies himself a DJ; Lee, an unemployed young man halfheartedly headed for a new life in Australia; the old Professor, rather out of it and grandly quoting poetry and history; Davey, a fellow working at an abattoir and himself rather meaty; and two young women, remnants from the preceding night’s drunken bash, crawling out from under the trailer, one of them hopelessly trying to seduce Johnny. Occasionally Wesley, owner of the bar from which Johnny has been banned for starting a fracas, drops in with bad news. We eventually also get Dawn, Johnny’s ex-wife with six-year-old Marky, on whom Johnny lavishes paternal affection the boy scarcely responds to.
At the center of it all is Johnny, limping from one of his exhibitions of riding his motorbike over a row of busses but bone-breakingly landing on the last one, left for dead but rousing himself for a beer-swilling binge. Grandly he carries on, mocking everyone and especially the housing authorities, whose seventh and final summons to a court hearing before the razing of his trailer he swaggeringly ignores. Instead, he boasts of a meeting with the giant who claims to have built Stonehenge, and who bestowed on him the large drum whose beating would allegedly summon the mythic race of giants to his support.
Rylance’s performance is as pungent as it is good-humored, his delivery of most lines edging seeming innocuousness with an ironic sting. His facial expressions are of deceptive bonhomie, his palaver insinuatingly inflected. A mildly devilish self-satisfaction oozes from his every pore. This Rooster is a piece of acting that ranks with, or outranks, anything you may have seen or will see. It will run through your memory more times than you can count.
But kudos also to the entire cast, though the Americans have some accent trouble—even the otherwise able John Gallagher, Jr. as the would-be emigrant Lee.Outstanding are the dopy Ginger of Mackenzie Crook, the unrealizingly doped-up Professor of Alan David, the jovially oafish Davey of Danny Kirrane, the ludicrous (especially when dancing) Wesley of Max Baker, and the menacing Troy (whom I didn’t mention above) of Barry Sloane.
Now add the cheerily motley costumes and marvelously woodsy setting by Ultz and the spirited direction by Ian Hickson that easily makes up for a few sluggish moments in the text. There are, to be sure, some intensely British references and jargon that may elude your comprehension. But what are such minor losses to a play and production offering almost three hours of rare involvement and levity?
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
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