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NEW YORK – It seems significant that the program for Jerusalem lists no understudy for Mark Rylance, because watching his astonishing performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron makes it impossible to imagine anyone else ever inhabiting the role. That takes nothing away, however, from the rude beauty of Jez Butterworth’s sprawling, shattering play. To borrow a phrase from Rooster, it might be described as an “alcoholic, bucolic frolic,” except that it’s so much more.
Ian Rickson’s expertly calibrated production premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2009 before transferring to the West End and now Broadway, with much of its original cast intact. The masterful shifts in tone make the three-act play a rollercoaster ride from rollicking, irreverent comedy through melancholy sobriety to stunning violence, laced with haunting whispers of mythology.
The story centers on Rooster, a former daredevil stunt rider living in a trailer named Waterloo in the Wiltshire woods, where locals from the encroaching estates are mounting a battle to get him evicted. But the evocative play’s real subject is the erosion of Englishness. Set on St. George’s Day as a town fair is taking place beyond the forest, it alludes to the disappearance of tradition, to the death of pastoral life and the Romantic imagination, to a country’s growing disconnect from its land, its history and its fabled stories.
Rooster is a defiant holdover from a vanished age of heroic, dragon-slaying warriors and silver-tongued poets. Uncouth, anarchic and of course eminently Byronic, he’s part Pied Piper and part Christ — a Falstaffian embodiment of William Blake’s stirring lyrics to the popular British hymn that gives Butterworth’s play its title.
Drug-dealing, hard-partying Rooster’s battered silver trailer has been a magnet for local youth for 29 years. They come to share a spliff and a drink, and to listen to Rooster’s outlandish tales. His voracious appetites and loose-cannon behavior have made him the pariah of the county, but Rooster also offers unorthodox shelter to his merry young band. He coaxes them by example to nurture a rebellious spirit cramped by their stagnant, petty lives.
Senior members of Rooster’s retinue include his scruffy pal Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), an unemployed plasterer who aspires to be a DJ, and an eccentric philosopher who goes by “the Professor” (Alan David). Pub owner Wesley (Max Baker) stops by for the occasional gram of coke, but officially, he keeps his distance, his village tavern fast surrendering its identity to corporate franchising. Most of the satellites in Rooster’s orbit, however, are feckless teens and twentysomethings, with only Lee (John Gallagher Jr.) showing some hesitant direction by buying a one-way ticket to Australia.
Rooster remains unfazed by the legal bullying of council enforcement officers, and only dimly acknowledges his shortcomings when his former lover (Geraldine Hughes) appears to remind him of his negligible parenting skills with their 6-year-old son (Mark Page, alternating with Aiden Eyrick).
The dialogue is blisteringly funny, but menace lingers in the air throughout. The threat of violence is generated not just by Rooster’s scheduled eviction but by the disappearance of 15-year-old Phaedra (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), an ethereal creature in fairy wings, crowned May Queen at last year’s fair.
The speculation that Phaedra might have been taken by werewolves is lobbed in as a joke, but it feeds into a rich vein of fantastical magic, mythology and mysticism in the play. There’s talk of summoning ancestors and of the spiritual significance of ley lines, connecting ancient sites across the land. It’s a testament to the beguiling spell of Rylance’s performance that even Rooster’s most fanciful yarns – among them an encounter with a 3,000-year-old, 90-foot giant who claimed to have built Stonehenge – start to seem plausible.
Butterworth’s pithiest summation of the play’s sense of mourning comes in an exquisite monologue near the end, in which Rooster recalls the many strange things he has seen in the woods, with a sorrow that cuts deep. He’s a magnificent character as written, but as performed by Rylance, Rooster becomes something epically tragic. His ruddy, sweaty, brawling braggadocio clears like mist in moments of unsettling stillness to reveal a soul that stretches back generations.
In a very tight ensemble, there’s standout work from Crook, Baker and David. But every actor nails an unmistakably English type, many of which Butterworth cleverly tweaks to allow even the dimmest bulbs to show inadvertent sparks of wisdom. Rickson’s design collaborators make invaluable contributions. Ultz’s leafy single set, dominated by the trailer, is almost a character in itself, littered with telling signs of hedonism gone wild. And Mimi Jordan Sherin’s subtle lighting imperceptibly shifts as the day progresses.
But the vibrant heart of the production is without question Rylance. His loopy physicality and staggering vocal command, his sly playfulness and explosive bursts of intensity make him a mad genius. With three successive Broadway roles in Boeing-Boeing, La Bete, and now Jerusalem, Rylance has continued to raise the bar for himself with distinctive, highly idiosyncratic performances. Rooster might be his masterpiece.
Venue: The Music Box, New York (Through July 24)
Cast: Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, John Gallagher Jr., Max Baker, Alan David, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Aiden Eyrick, Geraldine Hughes, Danny Kirrane, Charlotte Mills, Sarah Moyle, Mark Page, Molly Ranson, Harvey Robinson, Barry Sloane, Richard Short, Jay Sullivan
Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Director: Ian Rickson
Set and costume designer: Ultz
Lighting designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Roger Berlind, Royal Court Theatre Productions, Beverly Bartner/Alice Tulchin, Dede Harris/Rupert Gavin, Broadway Across America, Jon B. Platt, 1001 Nights/Stephanie P. McClelland, Carole L. Haber/Richard Willis, Jacki Barlia Florin/Adam Blanshay
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