By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Ian Rickson
Music Box Theatre, New York
Jez Butterworth’s play “Jerusalem” has nothing to do with Israelis and Palestinians. The title refers to the English hymn, based on a poem by William Blake, that many regard as an unofficial national anthem, the British equivalent of “God Bless America.” The play begins with a young girl wearing faerie wings standing in front of the curtain singing the hymn a cappella. After a minute, music starts coming up behind her singing, techno music that gets louder and louder and louder till it’s almost deafening. The curtain goes up and there’s a total rave going on, people in crazy costumes thrashing around— for less than a minute. Then blackout. When the lights come up again, we hear sleepy morning bird sounds and watch two official-looking people surveying wreckage scattered around the lawn of a beat-up old Airstream trailer: the home of Johnny “Rooster” Byron.
“Jerusalem” dramatizes what happens on the day that the local community makes good on its umpteen efforts to confront Rooster Byron as a menace to society and to evict him from the plot he’s squatted on for decades. Byron is a broken-down wreck of a former daredevil rider who now spends his days doing handyman work for residents of the crappy new housing development nearby. More to the point, he deals a full array of drugs not just to the kids who flock to him as an anti-authoritarian hero but also to the grown-up hippies who are their disapproving parents but nevertheless enjoy a bit of blow and extracurricular shagging when they think no one else is looking.
Like some unruly combination of Fagin, Falstaff, and Hunter S. Thompson, Byron stands in opposition to mainstream bourgeois society, alcoholic loser and corrupter of youth at the same time as he’s a pagan anarchist mentor and teacher of elemental ancient mysteries. The playwright has carefully constructed him as part man and part myth. The story unfolds on April 23, which, besides being the birth (and death) day of Shakespeare, is celebrated as the feast day of the famed dragonslayer St. George, patron saint of England. In interviews, Butterworth has acknowledged that Byron contains aspects of both the heroic warrior St. Georgeand the demonic dragon. He is certainly one of the largest, fiercest, craziest characters ever created for the contemporary stage, and every scrap and tittle of his gigantic, outrageous over-the-topness has been stuffed into the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance. A force of nature all by himself, Rylance already gave one spectacularly showy performance this season in “La Bête,” and “Jerusalem” would be worth seeing if only to watch him top himself as an astonishingly talented and fearless actor.
But the play itself is also extraordinary—smart and dense as Shakespeare or Stoppard in its language and its ability to keep four or five storylines afloat with minimum explain-y exposition. At the same time, it’s loose, funny, and hip in its portrayal of small-town slacker youths hungry for depth and adventure, numbed silly and desperately unfed by 21st century culture. For them, Byron vaguely represents defiance, a fuck-you to the dreary drudgery of adult workaday life. For his contemporaries, Byron is dangerous because he remembers their wild youth and reminds them of how tamed they’ve let themselves become. And then there’s Byron’s own relationship to the woods, to the land, to the ghosts and spirits and giants who inhabit them, and to the gypsy blood of his lineage.
I’m reluctant to go into details of the plot or the characters—first, because it would be long and complicated and perhaps boring to relate, but also because there are elements of surprise and magic to the play I wouldn’t want to spoil. I remember seeing Butterworth’s first play “Mojo,” which struck me as the admirable work of a young British writer intoxicated by the idiosyncratic theatrical language of David Mamet and Sam Shepard, the sharpest American playwrights of their generation. “Jerusalem” conjures for me several of Shepard’s most exciting, disturbing, theatrically inventive plays: the wooly rock-and-roll lyricism of “Operation Sidewinder,” the overlapping realities of “Suicide in B-Flat,” and the scary, mad, inescapable family heritage that runs through “Buried Child.” All that being said, “Jersualem” is as original and mysterious a play as I’ve seen in a very long time.
Ian Rickson, who directed an excellent version of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” on Broadway two years ago (starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Saarsgard, and then-unknown Carey Mulligan), has given it an impeccably energetic production with fantastic set and costume designs by the artist known as Ultz. And the supporting cast, most of whom came to Broadway from the original production at London’s Royal Court, pale not one jot next to the rip-roaring Rylance. Mackenzie Crook, who made a remarkably gnomish Treplev in Rickson’s “Seagull,” stands out as Ginger, Sancho Panza to Byron’s Quixote. Alan David is hilarious as the goofy, sweet Professor. Max Baker does a great job as a pub owner torn between wanting to hang with the rowdies under Byron’s spell and aligning himself with the straight-and-narrow. The one ringer is John Gallagher, Jr., who was so great in “Spring Awakening” but so whitebread in “American Idiot” and again here playing the role of Lee, especially in contrast to Aimée-Ffion Edwards, Danny Kirrane, Molly Ranson, and Charlotte Mills, the unlikely looking but entirely fearless and fresh young actors surrounding him.