Friday, April 08, 2011

Jerusalem on Broadway

This play by Jez Butterworth comes with a lot of great buzz and for the most part it is quite deserved. It's a richly funny play about the current state of England, as opposed to the mythical England from Masterpiece Theater that is no more.
However, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, so much depends upon... the seats you get. We were in the middle of the mezzanine of the rather cavernous theater and we had trouble hearing the cast. Either they are not miked, or the mikes are too low, but there were big swaths of very funny dialogue that we missed.
The play is about a rowdy character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron, who lives in an Airstream trailer in the woods and is a sort of king of the forest, and a petty drug dealer who befriends a gang of aimless youngsters who like to spend time with him, or rather, with his drugs. Because he is a one man plague, he is about to be evicted from his sylvan home by the authorities on St. George's day (the patron saint of England).
Byron is a magnificent character: a highly imaginative liar (he claims, in my favorite bit, to have had a conversation with a 90 foot giant who built Stonehenge), an anarchic presence, a thorn on the side of good customs, a manipulator and opportunist, but a good man.
Alas, I do not share the general enthusiasm for Mark Rylance. He works very hard to be funny, which makes him a ham. His commitment and physicality are admirable, but the three times I've seen him on Broadway (Boing Boing, in which I hated him, and La Bete, where he was better, but way over the top) I have found him more unfunny than not and loaded with shtick. I would love to see this play with someone else playing Byron. Someone like Stephen Mangan, who was incredible as Norman in The Norman Conquests, or someone naturally feisty, like Billy Connolly (he'd be brilliant). 
The production is very striking. The first scene is an amazing coup de theatre in which we witness the crazy revels of a drug party at Byron's and then immediately, with a clever change of lights, the morning after. The play's language is rich and abundant, teeming with jokes and dramatic allusions, and even if you know little of Shakespeare and other British tropes you get a general sense of a fierce and lively debunking of the national character.  However, at over three hours, the play becomes rather unwieldy and uneven. I really liked Act 2, when a more personal side of Byron emerges, but Act 3 spirals into sordid violence and the ending seems too remote from the tone of the rest of the play.

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