Finally, Mark Rylance in A Role Worthy of His Talent….
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land….
When I walked out of the Music Box Theater Wednesday afternoon, I was in a daze, profoundly struck by one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I’ve ever known.
Yet I couldn’t quite get what JERUSALEM had been about, this because I hadn’t noticed Ian Rickson’s program notes – I don’t read instruction manuals, either – and so didn’t understand the significance of the title, and how it related to the play I’d just seen.
London audiences would have entered the theatre understanding that significance, just as we’d understand “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a title, but we Yanks will benefit from some explanation.
“Jerusalem” is a poem written in the very early 19th Century by William Blake. Music was added in 1916, to raise the spirits of the English soldiers fighting in World War I, and the result became a hymn that today serves as a sort of unofficial English national anthem.
Each of the play’s acts begins with a girl dressed as a fairy singing the hymn. Its quiet beauty contrasts with all else we see in JERUSALEM.
“Jerusalem” the hymn is about the destruction of gentle English countryside by the Industrial Revolution. It calls for the taking up of weapons to stop the incursion, and never ceasing to fight Till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green & pleasant Land.
Of course, heroes are needed to lead such a fight.
Enter Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance), a “hero” William Blake would have found more appalling than child labor.
Rooster is fifty-ish, half-crippled, a former motorcycle-jumper of double-decker buses. Every bone in his body has been broken at one time or another; he was even declared dead after one of his accidents, but somehow came back to life while the ambulance attendants weren’t looking, and snuck off to have a beer or six.
Living now in a squalid, battered caravan in the Wiltshire woods, he makes his living dealing drugs to his teenaged friends, who join with Rooster in wild, extremely loud, alcohol and drug-fueled parties that are more than a little disturbing to the occupants of the nearby housing development that has already destroyed part of the woods.
Those disturbed have signed a petition to have Rooster evicted, which the County Council is about to do. Perhaps not coincidentally, the caravan site is on the next parcel of woodland to be turned into tract housing.
The first three-quarters of the JERUSALEM are roaringly funny; the ending something else entirely.
Rylance did some exceptionally broad acting in BOEING, BOEING – for which he got the Best Actor Tony – and in LA BETE. Here he creates a far more worthy character, in the acting sense only: a man who’s simply unconcerned with the moral certainties those in the housing development fervently espouse, but a man with a great lust for living, no matter how much pain Life imparts to him.
Rylance plays Rooster with a gusto not often seen on any stage. He’s a teller of the tallest tales, the world his campfire, yet at the end of the impossible stories comes creeping doubt. Could they possibly be true? A little true? How much bigger than life can he be…?
Never do we see him as a hero, nor does Rooster see himself as one. He does see himself as being special, and as being free, and the fire within him couldn’t be doused by all of the Irish Sea.
Written by Jez Butterworth (MOJO, PARLOUR SONG at the Atlantic Theater), JERUSALEM opened at the Royal Court in 2009, then transferred to the West End. Rylance won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Actor. Director Ian Rickson (Broadway: The Seagull, Hedda Gabler) never puts a foot wrong, and doesn’t allow the three-hour play to lose momentum.
All the cast is fine, but I’ll make particular mention of Alan David, who plays an addled old professor who unknowingly takes acid; and MacKenzie Crook as Rooster’s mate, Ginger. The accents from the American half of the cast, however, are decidely variable.
But this play belongs to Mark Rylance. Making a morally reprehensible character spellbinding is no small feat, and near the end, when once again Rooster has been badly injured, he becomes nearly Shakespearean: King Lear railing against it all in front of a caravan that’s about to be bulldozed out of existence, but with his spirit as indomitable as ever.
He may not always know where he’s aiming his sword, or aim it where we’d want him to, but Rooster Byron never even dreams of putting it back in its sheath.
Rating (5 stars possible): ***** Stars (if you know the background; otherwise **** Stars)
The bottom line: A strong play and cast led by perhaps the greatest stage actor in the world, in perhaps his greatest role.
Who should go? Lovers of good theater
Do I recommend it? Yes