Friday, July 15, 2011

Review: "Jerusalem"

"I will not cease from Mental Flight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."  

The great poet William Blake wrote those words more than 200 years ago. For the British, it has become a rallying song, a sort of "America, the Beautiful", a call to make the sceptered isle the sort of city upon a hill that Ronald Reagan liked to talked about here. It is sung at political rallies and "football" games in the UK, the Brits calling their fellow countrymen to make their country great.

Needless to say, for the amazing new play "Jerusalem" on Broadway, it is a deeply ironic title.

Set in a grungy trailer park in contemporary England -- ravaged by three decades of Thatcherism and New Labour policies -- the play centers on an aging rebel named Johnny "Rooster" Byron. Rooster is a man who time and life has passed by, and he has repeatedly refused to vacate and move his trailer from the park that is to be demolished -- in order for some developers to build more of the luxury housing that has been encroaching upon the area. 

When the play starts, the morning after a wild party thrown outside Rooster's trailer, two cops come by and inform Rooster that he has 24 hours to leave. As the day wears on, Rooster continues to go about his life as though nothing is going to happen to him -- he drinks, smokes weed, and makes lots and lots of noise to bother his new, unwanted neighbors. At various times, he tells wild and unbelievable stories about himself and his daredevil days. Meanwhile, the young and desolate teenagers who live nearby come by and hang out with Rooster -- to buy weed and figure our their sad lives. Also, Rooster has to confront his ex-wife and the son he is alienated from, as well as some old friends who are trying to bring Rooster to his senses and get him to leave.

While Rooster's ordeal is the overarching story, "Jerusalem" is really a play of many subplots: there is the young man who is also leaving soon -- for Australia; there is the young girl who lusts after him; there is Ginger, one of Roosters "mates", who wants nothing more than to be like Rooster; and there is a missing girl named Phaedra, who Rooster is protecting from a violent and sexually aggressive stepfather. All of these interesting, dimensional characters add up to make "Jerusalem" a very funny and emotionally violent play. 

Written by a British playwright named Jez Butterworth (who recently wrote the movie Fair Game), "Jerusalem" is about the kind of people you rarely see on stage. You almost never see three-hour plays about angry middle aged men but this one does it with style. Mark Rylance plays Rooster and his performance has been rightly hailed as one of the most amazing Broadway has seen in years. It's up there with Brando in "Streetcar", it's that good (Rylance recently won a Tony for the role). The supporting cast is of young, mostly unknown British actors whose performances show a joy and exuberance that is enthralling. Best of all, while this play is an angry blast of social criticism -- against a Britain that is letting the young fall behind, that (like NYC) is being sold to the highest bidder and crushing everyone else, that is failing in every way of being Blake's Jerusalem -- it is never preachy, never didactic. It does what all great drama does: it shows, never tells.  

"Jerusalem" is the kind of play that makes theater great, that makes the kind of statement about the human condition and packs the kind of emotional wallop that only great theater can make. This is not a play for tourists or the casual theatergoer -- "Jerusalem" is a play for all those that love great drama about people and the crazy, conflicted world we all live in.  

1 comment:

  1. So glad that you saw Jerusalem. I have been a Mark Rylance fan since the opening of the London Globe Theatre in l997. Rylance was director then, and also acted.
    In its early years, men played all the women's roles ((as they did in Elizabethan drama) In 1999, Rylance was the best Cleopatra I have ever seen!!!!


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