Mark Rylance has a wild time as a man of substances in 'Jerusalem.'
Mention "Jerusalem" to most Brits and they're apt to well up. Americans, not so much. It's the title of a beloved hymn based on a William Blake poem that summons images of a peaceful and green, if primitive, England — an idyllic place that doesn't exist anymore. It is long defunct.
English dramatist Jez Butterworth cannily borrows the name "Jerusalem" for the sprawling and mostly engaging drama that opened last night, his Broadway debut.
The hero — make that antihero — Johnny (Rooster) Byron, is a rural renegade and drug dealer who's facing his own extinction. He's played by an outstanding Mark Rylance, who carries the show on his broad shoulders.
After a booze-fueled rave, Johnny awakens to find an eviction notice taped to his trailer door. His property — in the woods of southwest England — has been seized for housing development.
With bulldozers ready to arrive in hours, the clock is ticking on this ex-stunt daredevil who surrounds himself with eccentrics, townies and underaged misfits.
They put up with Johnny and his wild tales — including a doozy about bonding with a giant — but they're really there for the drugs.
Butterworth has an expert ally in director Ian Rickson, who staged the play at its 2009 premiere at London's Royal Court. The production at the Music Box is bold and high-spirited and boasts terrific acting. The evocative leafy set comes complete with live chickens, a turtle and a sad little goldfish.
The array of critters echo the odd human menagerie. Mackenzie Crook, so good in Rickson's Broadway revival of "The Seagull," is funny and sweet as Ginger, a wanna-be deejay who's always skeptical about Johnny's tales. Like many in the ensemble, he originated his role.
Also impressive are Danny Kirrane, as a slaughterhouse worker with no dreams of widening his world view; Alan David, as an eccentric professor, and Molly Ranson and Charlotte Mills, as two local girls game for a snort or a sniff of anything — or anyone.
"American Idiot" alum John Gallagher Jr. plays layabout Lee, adding yet another slacker to his résumé. Geraldine Hughes has a nice scene as Dawn, Johnny's disapproving ex-girlfriend and mother to his son, Marky (Aiden Eyrick).
In "Parlour Song," his 2008 Off-Broadway marital mystery, Butterworth showed gifts for richly textured atmosphere and characters to match. He uses that expertise again in "Jerusalem," an ambitious work bursting with sly humor and a few mystical moments.
But the play, which runs more than three hours, yields diminishing returns. The plot goes in circles and collapses during a contrived meeting between Johnny and Marky.
Fortunately, Rylance keeps you from tuning out. He won the 2008 Tony for his hilarious clowning in "Boeing-Boeing," and in "La Bete" earlier this season, he was sheer delight as a buffoonish actor.
As Johnny, a cross between the Pied Piper and Fagan, he does everything he can, including handstands, to create a vivid and ultimately touching portrait of a magnetic maniac.
Johnny's stories of giants may be nonsense, but there's no denying that Rylance wows you with performances that are larger than life.
The first time you hear the rumble in “Jerusalem,” the magnificent play by Jez Butterworth, you don’t think that it’s just a good sound effect or a subway passing beneath. A thundery whisper, like a premonition of earthquakes, fills the air every time someone looks deep, but really deep, into the eyes of Johnny Byron. And since Johnny Byron is portrayed by Mark Rylance, in a seismic performance that threatens to level the old Music Box Theater, this registers as utterly natural cause and effect.
Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? I mean, the idea of someone making the earth move when you look into his eyes is the sort of notion you find in cheap romance novels or a sci-fi comic book. And Mr. Rylance’s character in “Jerusalem,” which opened on Thursday night in an enthralling production directed by Ian Rickson, seems on first acquaintance like a pretty sad joke himself: a boastful wreck of a man held together by drugs and drink, existing as a 24-hour party guy in a squalid mobile home in the English countryside.
You may be excused for thinking that Johnny Byron, a crower and strutter who is also known as Rooster, is a rawer, slightly older, less cuddly version of those eternal male adolescents who dominate American film comedies these days, a poisoned Peter Pan. It makes sense that his principal companions should be the time-killing teenagers to whom he sells drugs. And he’s a joke even to them, at least some of the time.
But one of the indispensable things that art does is find grandeur in unexpected places. Shakespeare saw it in a fat, craven gourmand named Falstaff; Mr. Butterworth and Mr. Rylance have located it in another hedonist and fabulist. While refusing to make him heroic, or even likable in any traditional sense, “Jerusalem” persuades us to accept Johnny as one of the last of the titans, a man who taps our lust for life lived large and excessively, without social restraints. He incarnates the spirit of a mythic England that may never have been but that everyone, on some level, longs for.
“Jerusalem” is a great frame-busting play that still exists solidly within a conventional framework. The story of Johnny Byron’s last stand against the philistines who would evict him from his home is set largely within a period of 24 hours. The play’s inhabitants, embodied by a fully committed ensemble that includes Mackenzie Crook (of Mr. Rickson’s marvelous revival of “The Seagull”) and John Gallagher Jr. (“American Idiot”), speak in slangy, peppery dialogue that regularly cues laughter. And many of the supporting characters are given classic monologues of self-perception that enhance the work’s larger themes.
In that sense “Jerusalem” could have been written in almost any year from the 1920s onward. Yet this work takes you places — distant, out-of-time places — that well-made plays seldom do. And it thinks big — transcendently big — in ways contemporary drama seldom dares.
That was certainly the impression that seemed to grow and ripple through the audience like a mass shiver of recognition when I saw “Jerusalem” on its opening night at the Royal Court Theater in London in July 2009. (And nothing Mr. Butterworth had done previously, including his terrific breakout play, “Mojo,” prepared us for this.) But I was apprehensive about the show on Broadway.
“Jerusalem,” you see, is partly a state-of-the-nation play, the nation being Britain. (The drop curtain is painted with the red cross of St. George, the flag of medieval England.) And the mind-set of its characters is definitely British provincial, or as provincial as the age of television and the Internet allows. Yet the New York production — which retains half its original British cast and has been revised for clarity of cultural references — turns out to be rousingly accessible on these shores.
The show’s title is also that of the popular hymn adapted by Hubert Parry from a poem by William Blake. It’s the one that begins, “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green?” A nubile lass (Aimeé-Ffion Edwards), clad in a fairy costume, sings the hymn as a curtain raiser. And there’s no question that ancient times and the traditions they inspired are at issue.
The play takes place on St. George’s Day in Flintock, Wiltshire County, which means the local citizens are holding their annual county fair and parade to welcome spring. This ritual is much anticipated and discussed in the corner of the woods where Johnny Byron has parked his submarinelike mobile home for several decades. (Both the verdant set, dense in trees as well as human squalor, and gloriously mangy costumes are the inspired work of Ultz).
Yet there’s a prevailing sense that the fete’s going to be a big disappointment, what with the usual lame sporting booths (throw a sponge at the mayor’s wife) and parade floats (with themes like “Men in Black” and “Britain’s Got Talent”). That’s why many of the local adolescents, and a few grown-ups (including the excellent Alan David as an elderly professor who is more than absent-minded) have flocked to Johnny’s. They’re there not only to get high but also to reminisce about the fair in the old days, when Johnny, an Evel Knievel-like daredevil, would soar across rows of buses on his motorcycle, landing hard and shattering bones. He was even pronounced dead once.
Or so the stories go. And how much of Johnny’s stories — or those told by Ginger (a pitch-perfect Mr. Crook), his hapless sidekick — can you believe? This is a man who says he was conceived in a virgin birth that involved a semen-bearing bullet and was born with a full set of teeth. And, oh yes, he says he is in personal contact with Druidic giants.
These tales are regarded with both doubt and reverence by the kids, including Mr. Gallagher as a lad who is leaving town for Australia the next day, Charlotte Mills as the girl who fancies him and Danny Kirrane as a young worker in a slaughterhouse.
Adults like Dawn (Geraldine Hughes), the mother of Johnny’s son, and Wesley (Max Baker), a local pub owner, have settled into mere resignation and exchanged poetic expectation for life’s numbing prose, or almost. Everyone has a hunger to believe in legendary figures (whether it’s King Arthur or Frodo), but these are times of shriveled fantasies. And, really, how can you hero-worship a lying, physically broken-down stoner like Johnny?
Except that, improbably, you can. Mr. Rylance’s galvanizing physical performance gives full due to Johnny the loser, with his imbalanced walk and halting speech, testaments to a bone-breaking, brain-frying life. And no one’s denying that this pot and pill peddler is, like another myth-spinning Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know. It’s no wonder that the people of Flintock want Johnny run out of the area.
But Mr. Rylance also captures — to a degree I can imagine no other contemporary actor doing — Johnny’s vast, vital, Falstaffian appetite for pleasure, for independence, for life itself. Mr. Rylance has already dazzled Broadway this season with his portrayal of the inexhaustibly obnoxious title character of “La Bête.” But his Johnny Byron is truly a performance for the ages.
We theatergoers too are starved for a sense of the mythic, for performances we can talk about with glassy-eyed rapture in the years to come. Mr. Butterworth, Mr. Rickson and Mr. Rylance have provided us with that opportunity. Except in this case the mythic is no mere myth.