Mark Rylance is ridiculously successful: he grew up in Milwaukee (playing all the leads at University School), moved back to his parent’s native England, and, armed with little more than talent, intelligence, imagination, charisma, modesty, a sense of humor, and good looks, he steadily rose to his present status as premiere stage actor of our time. Just recently, he won his second Tony award, this time for his monumental performance in Jerusalem, a wondrous new work by British playwright Jez Butterworth. Your intrepid reviewer made the arduous trek to Broadway to report on the latest effort from this local boy who has done quite well.
One could imagine a New Yorker cartoon: an elderly Jewish couple at the Jerusalem box office angrily demanding their money back. The play has nothing whatsoever to do with baroque Middle-Eastern politics. It does take place on Saint George’s day– a festival celebrated for centuries in honor of England’s patron saint (who, marvelously, was from Syria and never set foot on the British Isles– but there was that dragon thing). Jerusalem is also the theme of the famous poem by William Blake: the unofficial English anthem, official hymn of the Women Voters’ League, sung in churches, schools, and at rugby matches.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
Thus the play’s very title perfectly enacts it’s paradoxical conflations of illusion and reality. The vision-seeing Blake, of course, lived a life of obscurity, and his contemporaries thought him quite mad. But he saw clearly enough the threat of “dark Satanic mills” to the English countryside at the very beginning of the Industrial revolution. In this lyrical, elegiac and wickedly funny play, Rylance plays such an outsider of questionable sanity, whose way of life is similarly endangered by progress: Johnny “Rooster” Byron. A former motorcycle daredevil, now pushing forty, Byron squats in a stainless steel trailer in the rural Wiltshire woods, not far from Stonehenge, raising chickens and dealing drugs to a nonstop stream of disaffected high-school students and other refugees from society. Byron is not the kind of fellow you’d invite into your home; he’s quixotic, mercurial, more than half wild; prone to public urination and indecent exposure, getting into fights and destroying property from sheer excess of elan vital. He’s been banned for every pub in the county. But along with his unsavoriness comes romantic grandeur: legendary beasts and satyrs seem to haunt his margins; lost souls take refuge in him; he’s a boozy Tom Bombadil, his trailer a land of Cockaigne where the powers of society are null. His language is rich, earthy, full of fantastical tales told matter of factly as if he lives in the real world and everyone else is sadly stunted.
Another actor might tackle this role with Dennis Hopper’s huffing and growling; Rylance takes a more subtle angle: he makes his entrance– on the morning after a particularly fine debauch– does a headstand on the water trough to immerse his head, downs a vile hangover cure of raw egg and vodka, starts his old stereo with a bump of his hip and boogies down to old-time rock and roll. He’s always got a bit of a twinkle in his deep black eyes; he speaks in a gruff rustic whisper, playing down his barbarian quality. You can see why the kids hang around rather than fleeing with their bags; he’s full of games, contests and frathouse antics; he’ll pick up a bullhorn and taunt the poor working sots in the nearby housing development.
The script is as wild as the forest, meandering through lyrical, comic and heartbreaking incidents. Butterworth keeps things up-to-date with frequent references to pop culture and technology: Johnny doesn’t believe it was him who smashed his flat-screen television until one of the kids shows him the cellphone video; we hear the music and the cheers while Byron winces. In one of the show’s funniest and most crucial moments, he bemuses his entourage with a story of how he met the giant who built Stonehenge– (illustrating their relative scale by placing his cigarette lighter on the ground to represent himself) “mostly we talked about the weather” –and how the giant gave him a golden drum with which he could summon all the giants of England in his time of need. Then, producing a large, oddly-figured drum, he challenges the kids to call the giants. When one gives it a thump, the tiniest of little boys immediately walks onstage. It’s Byron’s son (he’s an awful dad, of course).
But this turns out to be a most fateful St. George’s day: the May Queen is missing and her irate lumpen father is looking for her; it’s slacker-boy Lee’s last day in town before he packs off to Australia for a life of adventure– and Johnny’s being evicted. The powers that be want to build a second housing development, and the neighbors have had enough of his anarchy and corruption of youth. He takes it all as an oak tree takes a thunderstorm– ‘twill pass, no reason to stop the party. As the day goes on, these plots converge and play out, with fearsome results. In a battle between poetry and prose, who would you bet on?
Rylance has the support of a wonderful cast of actors, many from the original British cast, plus a few Americans, at least one chicken, and a very charismatic goldfish. Alan David plays the Professor, an old man prone to spouting Wordsworth, taking refuge from the grief of his departed wife, dropping acid with the youngsters. From him we get the scholarly strain of English lore (Byron himself barely knows William Blake’s name). Max Baker represents another strand of folk culture as the harried pub owner; appearing in the white costume of a Morris dancer, he shows how tradition loses power by rote repetition: his underwhelming hanky-waving dance supposedly representing the sun god. Geraldine Hughes is moving in her brief turn as the mother of Johnny’s son, bearing the woman’s timeless burden of the man’s free-spirited life.
The play is without question about England: the conflux of modern life with a history too ancient to be fathomed (to see just how deep the mythos goes, consider the custom of the May Queen). Some of the local references and accents might be a bit heavy for the average American. But the play is also about what we lose when we outgrow enchantment; when we start seeing the natural world as a “resource” rather than a miracle. At the end, when the cornered Byron, bloody and disfigured, curses his enemies, it is a terrible curse: the curse of the conquered little people, robbed of their inheritance by the greedy and powerful. And if we can’t admire Rooster Byron, or imagine anything other than his inevitable incarceration, who is so soul-dead that some wild corner of themself doesn’t dearly want the giants to show up and blast the bankers and their bulldozers to hell?
Rylance himself seems certain they will. The trickster/artist has been putting his fame to the support of some highly offbeat causes, like Survival International, which advocates for the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. Rylance has set up his own homestead in the borderlands between dream and waking stuff; he’s prone to talking about Britain’s geomantic energy lines or hanging out in crop circles; he’s given whimsical poetry as acceptance speeches for his Tony awards (plugging Wisconsin in the process); he’s slyly informed London’s Financial Times that capitalism is over. And he’s contributed greatly to the shaping and final form of Jerusalem, a play which uses it’s rough magic to bring the repressed to light, to integrate ancient things into a world that scarcely knows how much it needs them.
Go to New York: you’ll love The Book of Mormon— but Jerusalem will haunt you. And if you can’t make it to Broadway (or London, where the play is set for it’s third revival), take heart: there’s talk of a movie. And there’s no doubt whatsoever who’ll play the lead.