Thursday, June 09, 2011


As a playwright, Jez Butterworth seems to be keenly interested in the implied. The words that he puts in his characters' mouths are often meant to signify something that's three steps removed from what was actually said. This worked to varying degrees in Butterworth's 2007 play Parlour Song, in which a man tries to understand why his wife begins stealing everyday items from their home and storing them in their shed. It works less well in his newest play, Jerusalem, which is currently bowing on Broadway after a successful London run in 2009. The difference here is that the former play was a Pinteresque chamber drama; this new work is an overstuffed epic in the vein of O'Neill or August Wilson. The extreme ambiguity of much of the language and the banality of the actual work itself leave the audience wondering what they've spent three hours watching was supposed to mean.

On the morning of St. George's Day, "Rooster" Johnny Byron (Mark Rylance) is being evicted from his home. The term "home," in the literal sense, could be an exaggeration--he has been squatting in the forest that surrounds the village of Flintock for twenty-nine years, surviving on a steady diet of drugs, booze and debauchery. Now that a new development of mini-mansions has been erected in spitting distance from Rooster's lean-to, the borough has finally taken action to remove him from his bacchanalian post. The actual play revolves around the hours leading up to the eviction, where he and his cohorts (performed by acclaimed British actor Mackenzie Crook and Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr, among others) continue to live life their own way, with the prospect of dire consequences always looming.

The play's title is taken from William Blake's 1804 poem "And did those feet in ancient time," which was set to music during World War I and is colloquially known as "The Jerusalem Hymn." According to a program note from director Ian Rickson, this hymn holds strong significance to the English people, and "has been claimed both by workers' groups and The Conservative Party." Therefore, it holds meaning to every English citizen, no matter how they identify themselves. Butterworth's play seems to represent this--the McMansions that force Rooster's eviction obviously stand in for the "dark Satanic mills" that Blake used to represent the Industrial Revolution, while the conservative village people who want to cut Rooster loose believe that they are doing so in order to "build Jerusalem / In England's green and pleasant land." Unfortunately, neither makes a particularly compelling case.

It doesn't help that Rooster is one of the most unsympathetic characters in recent memory. Much like another "lovable" character in an acclaimed British play--Hector, the handsy schoolmaster in Alan Bennett's worthless History Boys--the audience is supposed to be transfixed and beguiled by a waster who benefits from manipulation and the lowered expectations of others. Rooster provides drugs and has sex with teenagers, while neglecting his own six-year-old son (who appears briefly, accompanied by his mother, played by the fine Irish actress Geraldine Hughes). It doesn't help that Rylance's performance is Master Thespian to the hilt--which seems to be what we've come to expect from this particular actor. The halting speech, the kinetic movements, the constantly shifting voice's all there. The audience I attended with leapt to their feet at curtain; I simply groaned.

I am not the ideal customer for this play. As noted, I'm not the hugest fan of Rylance's bag of tricks, nor am I an Anglophile. I'd never heard of St. George's Day, and despite holding a master's degree in poetry, my only experience with William Blake was in a poetry survey my freshman year of college. Still, I cannot imagine why so many people have fallen over themselves to rave about a play that is both overstuffed and undercooked.

I also want to note the trouble I had hearing most of the cast throughout the performance. Rylance has stated in interviews that he is passionate performing without amplification; this is a noble goal, but it only works if every member of the cast is able to achieve sustained projection that feels natural. When I saw Rylance in La Bete six months ago--in the same theatre, from roughly the same seat--I had no problem hearing him or any of the cast. Yesterday, the company ranged from consistently audible (Rylance, Hughes, Alan David) to patchy (Gallagher, Max Baker) to completely inaudible throughout (Crook, Molly Ranson, Aimee-Ffion Edwards). Projection is a hallmark of the theatre, where the use of body microphones has only been standard for roughly twenty years. If you cannot project, you shouldn't be on stage.

(Seen at the matinee performance on June 8. TDF tickets; Orchestra M4).


Wendy Caster said...

Cameron, could you email me? The email address I have for you is no good. Wendy

Cameron Kelsall said...

You got it, Wendy.