Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Why Can't The English Learn to Speak?

April 12, 2011

Mark Rylance with the London cast of Jerusalem Photo: Simon Annand

The weight of culture and history are everywhere in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem which is currently in previews on Broadway following a highly successful run in London. The country in question is England and the title refers to the William Blake poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” that was later set by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 into something of an English national anthem. The hymn is sung a cappella by a young woman in a pale green slip dress and fairy wings in front of a giant hand painted curtain of the English flag at the opening of Butterworth’s play. As she draws to her conclusion, the curtain lifts to reveal a strobe lit rave with pulsating electronic music taking place deep in the woods of the English countryside fueled by all stripes of illicit drugs in front of a aluminum sided camper van. It’s not subtle, but Butterworth is clearly laying down his challenge early in this comedy with a provocative “This is England.”

Of course it is really just one of many Englands, but Jerusalem focuses on the ways in which some of the more marginal characters in a small countryside town do and don’t reflect the cultural history of a land once inhabited by ancient Druids and the builders of Stonehenge. At the center of the play is one Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the drug-dealing inhabitant of the camper van who has spent the last several decades staying just outside of prison going from one alcohol-fueled bender to the next. He’s also a bit of a Green Man as well and we’re invited repeatedly to see him as representing, albeit sometimes ironically, a more ancient or essential version of the English. He’s about to be evicted from the woods around Flintock in Wiltshire and his current merry band of drug-addled teens and hangers-on are none too happy about the local estates plans to develop the wooded land he currently resides upon illegally. Of course Byron, like his romantic poet namesake, is not about to let the law or reason get in the way of his tall tales or his very low rent version of the good life. Byron is masterfully played by perhaps one of the greatest actors currently on the world’s stages, Mark Rylance, who adds yet another incomparable performance to his resumé here. He is mesmerizing for all three and a half hours of this, even when Byron drenched myself and several others sitting down front by wildly wringing out his wet hair in Act I.

Mark Rylance from the London production of Jerusalem Photo: Simon Annand

Byron has left a lot of damage in his wake including a child who he rarely sees and has served as a sort of pied piper to teens in the rural community for decades. He’s filled with stories of the countryside’s mythic past including tales of giants and magic drums and there are glimmers along the way that there may be more supernatural going on around him than meets the eye. There are moments of sentimentality, but Byron’s very existence lies in opposition to a modern corporate-driven world that has lost touch with an all too easily forgotten past.

The play includes a number of wonderful ensemble performances as well including a great Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, an unsuccessful DJ and quasi-employed construction worker who may be one of Byron’s longest-standing acquaintances. Many of the members of the London cast including Alan David as the Professor and Danny Kirrane as Davey, have continued on in New York providing wonderful and very funny turns. But there are also some American additions including John Gallagher, Jr. as Lee, a local boy who is packed up and ready to leave for adventure in Australia the day following the events in the play. Gallagher is probably the weakest link in the show more due to his ongoing mugging than any accent problems, but this is Rylance’s show and the cast is large enough overall that no individual takes up so much time as to overwhelm the many great things going on here.

I think this is a great play. And in its way, it has much the same sensibility as Tracy Letts’ intense envisioning of American in August: Osage County. Will it be a success in New York however is unclear. The play in unabashedly English and Butterworth and his team including expert direction from Ian Rickson, have declined to refit or tone down the very aspects of the play that may make it les familiar to a general theater going New York audience. But perhaps that is for the best. It has often been observed that the biggest difference between the U.S. and Europe is that Europe actually has history. And lots of it. Jerusalem in the end is about creating a national identity in the context of just such an ancient heritage and the necessary trade-offs in it. It’s not an American story, but it is a fascinating one that deserves you attention.


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