nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
April 26, 2011
Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem—the most recent British production to transfer stateside—is an astounding tour-de-force that succeeds on all fronts. The script, direction, performances, and design are all impeccable, making this one of the most enjoyable Broadway experiences I’ve had in years.
The play’s title references a poem by William Blake, which expands on the apocryphal story that Jesus—in his “missing years”—actually traveled to the West Country in England. Written in 1804, the poem has since been adapted into a song of national pride. As director Ian Rickson notes in the program, “Jerusalem itself functions as a metaphor for heaven on earth, where people live in peace and in connection with the land.”
Butterworth interestingly chooses to dramatize this concept via Johnny “Rooster” Rocket, a middle-aged townie whose patch of woods has gradually been surrounded by new development. After committing countless acts of gross indecency, he receives a court order to move his trailer or face forcible removal. The eviction notice is accompanied by a petition signed by every citizen of his hometown, except for a loyal band of lowlifes who hang on his every story.
At once weathered but vibrant, amoral yet intensely spiritual, Rocket faces the threat as he has everything in his life—with seeming disregard. In time we learn of a deeper agenda, however for much of the play he delights his much younger followers with an assortment of illegal substances and outlandish stories that he insists to be true.
Meanwhile, the town celebrates an annual festival with mixed emotions, as the girl elected the previous year’s Queen has gone missing. Arguably the most destructive force in her young life, Rocket naturally comes under suspicion. However, within the subversive sensibilities of the play, the acceptance he provides may be the lone kindness the local children receive.
As Rocket, Mark Rylance delivers a captivating portrayal of a lost soul who is anything but lost. One gets the sense that he was born to play this role, yet it is a complete departure from the sharp-witted loose-tongued parts I have seen him play before. Here, his rhythms are much heavier, with every sentence resonating like a slow forlorn folktale, without beginning or end. His movements are stunted, but prone to unexpected bursts of vitality. It is the type of performance where the actor is inseparable from the material.
Rylance receives unwavering support from a highly capable cast, with each member contributing stellar performances. Especially noteworthy are Mackenzie Crook as Ginger—Rocket’s second in command, Danny Kirrane as Davey—one of the young degenerates, and Geraldine Hughes as Dawn—Rocket’s ex-lover and the mother of his child.
Rickson’s direction is masterful. Within the first minute, we have witnessed a lost fairy singing a folk song, a raucous late night party, and the next morning’s trash-laden aftermath. Each of these visions resonate long after we’ve moved forward, and illustrate Rickson’s greatest strength with this production. He crafts marvelous imagery, but only to the extent that it serves the plot. The show moves swiftly, with every moment fully realized. Certainly no easy task, to stage a three-hour production and make it feel like a half-hour.
Scenic design by Ultz—who also handled costumes—suits the play perfectly, with a twenty-foot trailer that looks ready to collapse, and real sod on the ground that gets annihilated by play’s end. Lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin is subtle and evocative. Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph and original music by Stephen Warbeck combine to great effect, at times pulling us into a manic dystopia, other times revealing the gentle clarity of nature.
Go see this play, before the tremendous talents on display here fly back across the Atlantic.