Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 21, 2011
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Ian Rickson. Scenic & costume design by Ultz. Lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin. Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. Original music by Stephen Warbeck. Cast: Mark Rylance with Mackenzie Crook, John Gallagher, Jr., Max Baker, Alan David, Aimée-Ffion Edwards, Aiden Eyrick, Geraldine Hughes, Danny Kirrane, Charlotte Mills, Sarah Moyle, Mark Page, Molly Ranson, Harvey Robinson, Barry Sloane, Frances Mercanti-Anthony, James Riordan, Richard Short, Jay Sullivan, Libby Woodbridge.
Though Rylance made deft impressions as very different pleasure-seekers in the revivals of Boeing-Boeing and La Bete, Rooster is his most vivid and successful creation yet unveiled on Broadway. When he dances, splashing himself with milk, alcohol, or even both as he contorts his limbs in accordance with the music of his passing fancy, he embodies the deathless spirit of the eternal awkward partier with terrifying conviction. Yet when locked in a more intimate situation, and he insists someone look directly in his eyes, the artifice completely falls away and all that's on view is the deepest human soul imaginable.
This is a man who doesn't merely claim he can summon giants — literal ones, by the way, not metaphorical ones — but can convince a caravan of too-smart young adults that that ability is real. When he spins his tales about his remarkable life, even events as technically mundane as the daredevil bike trick that left him with a permanent (but not debilitating) limp, you understand why everyone he meets takes him at his word. Rylance commits himself so completely to everything he says, even as you're rolling your eyes you're making mental notes to follow Rooster wherever he leads.
Rylance's success in the role serves three crucial purposes. First, it's unassailable — this is an old-fashioned tour-de-force turn of the style that the theatre has been reluctant to enable of late. Second, it's miraculous, because Rooster should be far too horrendous to even recognize the sympathy Rylance unlocks in him: As a drug dealer who's set up in a forest clearing a de-facto camp for disaffected or dissatisfied youth, that Rylance can make you feel anything for Rooster other than revulsion is no small accomplishment. Third, it's the only element of significant note in Butterworth's play.
At least in this country. At its heart, this is an unabashed vehicle for two equal-in-luminance stars, though only one of whom has landed on these shores. The other is England itself, which has a special relationship with the hymn that gives Jerusalem its title. Based on a William Blake poem and with music by Sir Hubert Parry, it recalls the way the country had been, and posits how it can be again, touched by God. Butterworth likens the fight of Blake's unseen narrator, who vows to do whatever he must to return his land to greatness, to Rooster himself, who undoubtedly represents some revolutionary spirit of critical importance to the British people.
Stripped of the centuries of history summoned by the poem and its song, which reportedly rivals "God Save the Queen" in its born-in-blood popularity, Jerusalem plays as a relatively unremarkable tale about the equivalent of an aging hippie trying to retain his grasp on the fire of his youth. Broadway last saw a play of this exact style in 2009, with Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts, but that was steeped in the United States's unique modern political heritage. Only Rooster, a representative of an archetype stretching back at least as far as Bacchus, resonates as something relevant to today. Everything else decorates the theme but does not develop it.
Rooster's gang is a rag-tag bunch, ranging from the professionally deluded Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), a would-be DJ whose career depends on other people getting sick, to Lee (John Gallagher, Jr., of Spring Awakening), who's planning a trip to Australia to find himself, to a pair of girl groupies (Molly Ranson and Charlotte Mills), and even a young woman named Phaedra (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) who is either a runaway or the physical manifestation of Rooster's guardian-angel wood nymph. They're realistically acted (though Gallagher, the sole American lead, could stand to lose the smug smirk he wears his every millisecond onstage), but their trials and tribulations do not seem germane to the play's documenting a single, harrowing extinction event.
Only when characters reflect directly on Rooster, particularly his ex-flame Dawn (Geraldine Hughes, a glorious vision of delicate anger) and their son Marky (Mark Page and Aiden Eyrick alternate), or Phaedra's violently protective older relatives (Barry Sloane, Jay Sullivan, and Richard Short), do they compel, contributing to the fabric of the creation of a legend rather than trying to steal its spotlight. The same is true of other elements of the production: Ian Rickson has provided pointed, uncompromising direction, and ULTZ's set (lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin) is plucky and pastoral, equal parts relaxing, threatening, and ridiculous. But it's all background.
It's Rooster and his Crusade that are the main, magnetic event, and Rylance will stop at nothing to impress upon you their vitality. Whether dodging responsibility, dodging the productive life, or dodging the police who are trying to shut Rooster down for good, Rylance always makes sure you that you know exactly where he's going and why that's the most important place he can be. If Jerusalem itself does not possess that same rock-solid sense of direction, for introducing us to this rollicking tour guide, it nonetheless deserves our fawning respect. But while bestowing it, watch out for giants. Rooster claims they're but a drumbeat away and I, for one, believe every word he says.