Being neither English nor Anglican, I did not grow up singing “Jerusalem.” My first memory of the song was the rendition by Emerson Lake and Palmer, who rocked it. Then I read William Blake’s poem, and subsequently heard passionate to passive renditions of the song in countless British films. Still the song does not have an emotional meaning for me outside of the cultural events with which I associate it. For me, “Jerusalem” is not the heart and soul of my country. Jez Butterworth’s play of that name, though, makes me think it is otherwise for the English.
Mark Rylance rocks Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” at the Music Box Theatre. This production traveled from London’s Royal Court Theatre with a buzz before it, and it does not disappoint. Setting, lighting, sound, cast, direction, are all spot on, exciting, and mesmerizing. The play’s three acts fly by.
A curtain adorned with a faded Cross of St. George hides the stage. A young girl dressed as a woodland fairy, wings and all, walks center and stands before the curtain. She sings “Jerusalem” a capella -- it is poignant, yearning, lonely. Then a raucous blast frightens her away. The curtain rises on chaos, a happening, a helluva party, the sort few will remember hours later in daylight.
The morning after: A long and very old mobile home has settled down in the forest. Loudspeakers are attached to its roof. Chickens in a coop live underneath at one end, somehow surviving the party and many others like it. The place looks like a junk yard – broken chairs, a table, an old turntable that has somehow survived life outside, a moldy old couch on a lopsided deck, a stack of LPs, bottles, a refrigerator, rubbish everywhere, and a trough filled with water. A man and woman of officialdom enter, Mrs. Fawcett cajoling Mr. John Byron to come out with her very own loudspeaker -- he does not -- and telling him what the notice they’re posting on the trailer door says: He’s being evicted. This entire incident is videotaped by the man, Mr. Parsons, who lets us know that this is a choice spot from which Mr. Byron is being evicted. Which makes his eviction immediately suspect, does it not?
Mark Rylance owns the stage before we even see him, and when we do, we are won. Hung over from the happening the night before, he heads for the trough of water, but he doesn’t merely splash water on his face. He does a headstand into the water. He shakes his head like a matted mutt, he growls, he drags his bad leg, he’s a mongrel pacing his territory. He is the ruler of his rubbish pile. An Englishman’s home is his castle.
Into this solitude breaks Ginger, a petulant, lost young man, older than the teenagers who are drawn to Johnny’s free lifestyle, cynical, perhaps heartbroken. He is played with sympathy and anger by Mackenzie Crook. He is immediately put out that he wasn’t invited to whatever party destroyed Rooster’s homestead – Rooster insists it was just a gathering, unplanned, and proceeds to tell the first of many utterly absurd stories to divert recriminations, responsibility, or reproach. He uses stories and seduction to fend off chiding.
One by one, partiers and chiders join this St. George’s Day gathering while not far off the town is having its more staid Flintock Fair – at which Rooster entertained years before, as a daredevil.
These people have all the “mod cons,” a large flat screen television, texting, videos on the cell phone, but the story is an old one. The pied piper for the youth of the area, going beyond one generation, and the people who turn him out.
The entire cast is sterling -- these actors live inside their characters’ hearts, they move with their characters’ bodies. This company is compact and concise in its absolute wildness. One might almost think they’re all just improvising, but of course they’re not. The stoned storytelling, the revelry, the uninhibited and far from sober behavior of the characters -- almost all of the characters -- could mislead us into thinking this a mash, a morass. It is not. It is precisely plotted, its rhythms building boldly to its closing drumbeats.
Butterworth’s seemingly disheveled script is all over the place, mad in its precision. Ian Rickson’s direction is tight, sensitive, choreographed chaos. This is a complex orchestration of a multi-layered story, and Rickson conducts masterfully. Add to this that Rylance plays the central role with abandon, his whole heart tossed into the hands of the audience, and “Jerusalem” becomes an entrancing night of enchantment in the Wiltshire woods. I felt as if I had been at a wild party, dancing on tables, crooning the blues into the night, partaking in heady conversations…which I forgot half of next morning.
Not surprisingly, aspects of “Jerusalem” remind me of the Angry Young Men writing in England in the 1950s (the label appropriately coined by the Royal Court Theatre back in the day). Butterworth’s Johnny “Rooster” Byron was an angry young man some years ago, not of the right class, not of the right background to be accepted into the middle class society, but he had no inclination to be part of that hypocritical mass. Johnny has always lived on the outskirts of society, in his youth as a daredevil, and for close to thirty years in this immobile mobile home in the forest – for so long that many of the locals call this spot “Rooster’s Wood.” He is no longer an angry young man: Fifty if he’s a day, and rather the worse for wear, with one bum leg, an inability to wake up or get through a day without massive quantities of drugs and alcohol, he has managed to get himself barred from every pub in town despite the fact that he’s the town’s drug dealer.
We’re more than halfway through the play when someone calls Rooster “Gypo.” Once said, it’s repeated. Rooster’s position degrades as the play progresses. Rooster is not just the odd man out, the outsider– Rooster Byron is a total outcast. The angry young men of the 1950s might not have championed him; their class war was not without its prejudices. Jez Butterworth is the angry young man for the 21st century, putting age old racism center stage.
Rooster seems to have some friends of his own generation – the Professor, a mild-mannered and very muddled man who mistakes Ginger for a Doctor Maureen Pringle from the university mathematics faculty, and searches in vain for Mary, his dog, who will never return. Alan David is delightful in this role. His sweet and sad professor has moments of lucidity which never lead him to unkindness. Wesley, on the other hand, is a publican who enters wearing the belled costume of a morris dancer. Max Baker plays Wesley as a sad sack, a man in mid-life crisis, sorrowing over his (and Johnny’s) lost youth. He needs Johnny’s accepting company and his drugs, but won’t stand up for him when it counts. Mostly, though, Rooster is the pied piper of Flintock, Wiltshire, welcoming its teenagers to his caravan and his campfire.
Woven through the tale of Rooster’s trials is the missing girl, Phaedra, whom we suspect is being abused by her lout of a stepfather, Troy (an earthy Barry Sloane in a repulsively realistic performance). Once the other teenage girls tell us about Phaedra, we realize we’ve seen her, and suspect we know where she’s hiding out. Where do all the teenagers hang out, as their parents did before them?
Johnny "Rooster" Byron is a storyteller, and a hilarious one is of his conversation with a giant. He tells the story of their meeting near the A14, in which they talked of the weather. Johnny, of course, plays both himself and the giant. He tells his rapt teenage listeners (and Ginger, who is no teenager) that the giant gave him a gift of an earring – the giant’s own earring, which of course is rather large when brought to the scale of a mere human. It’s a conga drum. Johnny challenges the disbelieving Ginger to play the drum, which would bring forth the giants. Ginger insists he doesn’t believe it, but he daren’t strike the drum. Such is the mesmerizing effect of Johnny’s tales.
What struck me most in this production is that no member of the company disappointed for the briefest moment. Every actor lived his or her role so completely, each performance is fully informed, fully committed with exquisite timing. Besides those I’ve already mentioned --
Aimeé-Ffion Edwards plays Phaedra of the sweet voice as an ordinary bubble-headed teenager, demanding Johnny be what he is not.
Sarah Moyle is appropriately uptight and righteous as Ms. Fawcett, sent by the Council to inform Mr. John Byron of his place – but what is she hiding? Harvey Robinson as Mr. Parsons follows her, younger, a bit awestruck, toeing the line that will age him to match Ms. Fawcett.
Lee, the teenager preparing to leave home to embark on a great Australian adventure, the thinker of the group, yet dense, is played by John Gallagher, Jr. His Lee has heart, regrets, fears, and honor.
Davey is played by Danny Kirrane as an angry young man with no illusions. He spends his days in the slaughterhouse and his nights getting stoned and drunk enough to go to work the next day.
Pea, a silly and kindhearted teenager reveling in her acts of rebellion is played on the mark by Molly Ranson; and her buddy Tanya, who desperately wants to give herself to Lee, is brazenly played by Charlotte Mills.
Dawn, played by Geraldine Hughes, arrives expecting Johnny to be a responsible father for their son while she knows he’ll never be more than a loving one.
Scenic and costume design by Ultz are extraordinary, imaginative, bringing us to this place to hang with these people. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design warms us as the day brightens and maintains the reality of Rooster’s Wood. Ian Dickinson’s sound design welcomes us into the theatre with birdsong, then blasts our eardrums for the gathering and, well, whenever Rooster wants to.
Rooster’s home is an eyesore to anyone who is not a teenager or a juvenile delinquent (the latter not circumscribed by age). More, he does not live peacefully in the woods. He is loud. 400 yards away from Rooster’s Wood is the New Estate. Within a year or so of Rooster’s eviction, we just know the forest will have been razed and a new New Estate will overlook the old New Estate. Putting aside the fact that few, if any, of us would want Rooster as a neighbor, this smacks of eminent domain, overdevelopment, and just plain greed, along with enforced conformity. Johnny “Rooster” Byron is, unfortunately for him – and perhaps for England -- not Robin Hood, just a pied piper, and none of his followers are going to rescue him.
By play’s end Johnny is beaten down by the law, beaten bloody by the bad guys, betrayed by his friends young and old. He beats the drum, and we are with him as he calls forth the giants. The people of England -- not the councils or corporations, the people -- cry for the giants of old, Johnny’s giants who built Stonehenge, cry for St. George, for freedoms gobbled up by conformity and civilization. Johnny “Rooster” Byron commands it, and we believe. And hope.
"Jerusalem" is a play to be seen, heard and experienced. Happily it’s here in New York City at the Music Box Theatre through 24 July 2011. Do not miss it.
~ Molly Matera, logging off to read some Blake…and perhaps some Shakespeare…Happy Birthday, Will