Friday, April 22, 2011

theatre review- JERUSALEM - Broadway April 21

Last night we attended the opening night of the play Jerusalem.  Written by Jez Butterworth, it stars Mark Rylance as a modern day cross between the Pied Piper and Robin Hood.  The play was a success last year in London where Rylance won the Olivier award for Best Actor.

Rylance is Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a larger than life, 50ish year old man who basically has never grown up.  He is a literal force of nature with a mystical quality to him and often draws in the people he is with into the tall tales he tells.  Even though they know they can't possibly be real, the way he delivers them makes them seem possible.  The fact that most of the people he associates with are kids in their late teens and that he is selling drugs and providing alcohol to them, also says a lot about the type of character he is.  Add to this the fact that there is also the question of his association with a 15 year old girl who's gone missing and you have a play that isn't exactly a happy go lucky romp in the forest with a positive role model at the center.

Set in the town of Flintock in the South West part of England, close to Stonehenge, the play uses the mystical connection to that landmark to instill Rooster with mystical qualities and connections, or I should say that Rooster's stories and actions make him seem to have these.   One story Rooster tells is when he met a 90 foot giant who claimed to have built Stonehenge.  The giant gave Rooster a drum and told him to bang on it whenever he needed help and all of the giants would come and help him.  This scene was one of the highlights of the show, as the entire audience and Rooster's band of followers was held in rapt attention to the story.  And you know when the story is being told that Rooster will eventually find himself banging on that drum before the play is over.

Rooster has built a group of "merry men" around him just like Robin Hood did, and they hang on Rooster's every word.  And while Rooster may provide a safe place for the kids to be that he claims is safer then their homes, he is still allowing them to do drugs and drink alcohol when they are with him.   Many of the kids he associates with are too young to know of his daredevil days when he attempted to jump over a row of campers on a motorcyle and didn't quite make it.  He was pronounced dead until he got himself up and staggered off for a drink.  Rooster does have a limp from that event, but, like the young teens, we weren't there so we aren't quite sure if the accident actually happened that way or not.  Is it just another one of Rooster's tales?  Rooster's groups also includes a couple of older gents who also can't quite keep away from Rooster.  Or is it just that they come to him to get drugs and a way to escape from the realities of life outside the forest, a life with modern realities that has moved on beyond the life they want to live in?
Mackenzie Crook

While pretty much every character in this play is the type of person I would never find myself associated with, it was interesting to spend some time with them and to try to understand them.  One could understand the power that Rooster has over them and I liked Mackenzie Crook as "Ginger" the slightly older man who both needs Rooster's affirmation but questions his every move and statement as well (Crook is probably best known for appearing as the pirate with the glass eye in The Pirates of the Caribbean films) and Geraldine Hughes as "Dawn."  I really liked how characters like Dawn and Rooster have you at first thinking one thing about them, but then you start to feel almost the opposite about them when new information is presented.  Slight spoiler alert here for some examples:  Dawn is the mother of Rooster's six year old son and for the first half of the scene she has with Rooster when she is harassing him for the way he lives and how he takes no responsibility for his son, you can't imagine how they ever got together.  But then Rooster sits down while they are talking and cuts up some coke and when he leaves it alone, Dawn slowly comes over to the plate and inhales it and you realize that drugs were the connection and pretty much everything you thought about Dawn before is turned on it's head.  The other scene that shows this switch is when the kids are asking Rooster Trivial Pursuit questions and Rooster knows all of the answers - at first you think it is because he might have cheated and memorized them, but then you realize that it is because Rooster is actually a very intelligent person- which makes you think about him in a completely different light- he is much more then the "loser drug dealer" you first though he was.

The play is three hours long and very funny in parts.  While I enjoyed the leisurely pace and the way that the plot slowly revealed new elements, I still believe that plays about characters that really have no redeeming qualities basically don't amount to much unless you can identify with their plight.   For "Rooster" we know that he is about to be convicted from the camper he lives in in the woods as the new housing development next to him sees his campground as a junkyard. Now this should make us feel for him, especially since he says that the land he is using is his ancestral land and is called "Rooster's Forest" on the map, but then we also know that he hasn't paid any taxes on the property for years and that the police have definite knowledge of him selling drugs to minors on the property.  Rooster's comments about the town wanting to clear the land and build dozens of houses on it makes one think he's more of a modern day Robin Hood, living in the forest and going against the establishment.  But we also don't have enough information as to how Rooster got to be the way he is - and sometimes by better understanding a person's past we can more easily identify with how they got to be where they are and the predicament they are in.

Mark Rylance
And concerning that missing 15 year old girl:  I do believe that we are supposed to take away that Rooster is helping her hide away from her step father who may be abusing her.  But then again, maybe it is Rooster who is abusing her by pulling her in to his fantastical world as the dance they share toward the end of the play can definitely be viewed both ways - as both a protector and a possible abuser.

Now Rylance is giving a larger then life performance that will most likely win him a Tony Award but even though his character is magnetic I don't know if his performance alone is going to have your average theatre goer glad they saw this show. While glowing reviews in the NY Times and other papers might get people to see the show, I honestly think they will come away the same way I did, great performance at the center with basically no emotional connection to that character or the play at all.

And the reason the show is called Jersualem is a reference to the English poem of the same name by William Blake that was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry.  It has references to rising up against your enemy to defy the land:

"I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
’Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.”

And while I do like how Butterworth connects the poem to the destruction of the forests due to urban expansion, I'm not quite sure if having a drug dealing alcoholic as the person behind the uprising to hold on and to protect the land makes the most sense.   The hymn is probably best known to Americans from the film Chariots of Fire (see my review of the soundtrack to that film and mention of the hymn, here)

If you're looking for a hit London play to see this year, I'd much more recommend War Horse. (my review here)

Official Show Site

Teaser trailer for the Broadway production -

Another trailer for the Broadway run -

UK TV Interview with Rylance and Crook -

Video of the "Jerusalem" hymn (with lyrics) -

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