Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jerusalem on Broadway

If Flannery O’Connor had been an Anglican playwright instead of a Catholic short story–writer from the American South, she might have written “Jerusalem,” the hit drama starring Mark Rylance currently playing at the Music Box on Broadway. Named this year’s “Best Foreign Play” by the New York Drama Critics Circle, Jez Butterworth’s three-hour masterpiece combines misfits and mystery in a manner worthy of Our Flannery.

The “Foreign” designation is striking. Usually British plays and films are not viewed as foreign by industry award-givers like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But “Jerusalem,” though the title suggests an overtly Judeo-Christian theme, is a quintessentially British work about the British soul, which has its roots in the pre-Christian era. As such it may puzzle the average American theatergoer as much as an arty French film or a Noh drama—perhaps the way Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County would puzzle a Scot. It puzzled—and amazed—my daughter and me last night.

The anti-hero of “Jerusalem,” Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Rylance), is the last Robin Hood. He lives as a squatter in an Airstream mobile home set up on blocks in a section of British forest coveted by real estate developers. He deals drugs and parties hard with mostly younger people. His current love interest is a 15-year-old girl, roughly one-third his age. If local legend has it right (and myth and legend are a big part of the tale here), Rooster was once a sort of British Evel Knievel, jumping motorcycles over 18-wheelers lined up in rows. Now, in hobbled middle age, he limps on a permanently immobile knee joint, so that the only part of his left boot that hits ground is the heel. He has been banned from every pub in his West Country village, and the 15-year-old’s father, once a running mate of Rooster’s, is now out to get him. Combustible ingredients promise a third-act explosion, and “Jerusalem” delivers.

Before it was a play, “Jerusalem” was a British hymn “held very dear by the British people,” according to a valuable program note by director Ian Ricks. “Its words have helped form an idyllic sense of aspired Englishness.” The hymn is a musical setting by Hubert Parry of words by William Blake. The following verse is featured on a souvenir T-shirt sold at the performance:

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem, 
In England’s green and pleasant land.

You may remember the hymn “Jerusalem” from the funeral scene of “Chariots of Fire,” seen here.

The verse and the hymn, though not necessarily the play, are a statement of faith in the soul of Olde England, of the Britain of Stonehenge and druids, of Arthur and Beowulf. Historian Simon Schama analyzed the symbolism of the British forest for the British imagination in his book Landscape and Memory, and “Jerusalem” gathers in this theme and brings it forward to present day.

What is left of the myth, of the sense that the British soul is rooted in the island’s forest lands, of the determination to build a new Jerusalem in this green and pleasant place? Not much, to judge by Rooster’s rough surface. He is a role model for drug dealers and even, looking at him literally, pedophiles.

But Rooster is deeper than his police dossier. He tells a tale halfway through about his meeting with a giant, the one “who built Stonehenge.” His stoned young entourage meets this assertion with dropped jaws, spinning eyeballs, and some disbelief. Rooster claims that the giant left him a golden drum, telling him to beat it anytime he wanted to summon the giant and his supernatural allies. When disbelief becomes outrage at Rooster’s gargantuan lies, Rooster produces the drum. He induces one of the young men to beat the drum, to summon the giants, but the person who enters the stage is not a giant. He is Rooster’s six-year-old son, who lives with Rooster’s ex-girlfriend, Dawn.

When, after the third-act fireworks, Rooster’s son makes a second and final appearance, the scene between father and boy is riveting. Rooster invokes the long list of Byron ancestors that the two hold in common and smears the boy’s face with his own Byron blood. In scenes like this, Butterworth affirms and does not mock the traditions that Rooster stands for, even when he’s too drunk to stand. For all his sociopathic behavior, Rooster is pitted against the onrush of modernity—those real estate developers—and if he doesn’t stand for something, what will?

“Jerusalem” is a powerfully moving, beautifully acted work about how tradition—no matter how tattered and tarnished—somehow still anchors the English soul, and ours.

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