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April 17th, 2011

Jerusalem

I love Mark Rylance immoderately.  Ever since I saw him, yonks ago, as Olivia in the Globe's old-usage Twelfth Night in Chicago, I have been as putty in his hands.  He's an actor who takes chances, who doesn't care whether he sounds or looks ugly or comes across as unsympathetic.  He takes the text between his teeth and shakes it until it's given up everything it has to give, and then he finds just a little bit more.  He totally knocks my socks off, even when I don't particularly like the play.

I've seen him in everything I can that has brought him to America:  Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure in Boston, Boing Boing a few years back in New York, La Bete last November.  With all the reviews I've written of the plays I've seen, I can't believe that I've never written about him before, but so it is.  Possibly I was looking for my socks. (And I didn't like La Bete that much)  In any case, despite Passover madness and looming deadines, I'm making myself write about Jerusalem, because not only did I love Rylance, I loved the play.  And anything I can do to boost the signal to an audience that will actually appreciate a play about appealing monsters and the clash between tradition and progress, magic and mundanity, has got to be a good thing, right?

Jersualem doesn't have much of a plot, but the set-up is this.  Johnny "Rooster" Byron lives, and has lived for 20-some-odd years, in an aluminum trailer in a copse.  He's a gypsy (possibly), a drunk and a druggie (pretty much constantly), a daredevil (historically), an irresponsible husband and father (demonstrably), a Fool, a Trickster, and a Speaker With Giants (structurally, metaphorically, and maybe even literally).  We first meet him staggering out of his trailer on the morning of St. George's day.  The stagger is not just a function of his hangover, which is epic, but is itself a hangover of the days when he earned his living by jumping   his motorbike over lines of trucks and buses at county fairs, and broke every bone in his body multiple times, even (reputedly) coming back from the dead (like St. George).  His back and hip are cocked permanently to one side, giving him a walk that can look like a lurch, a swagger, or a debilitating impairment of his mobility, depending on context.  It's gait as character, and it's brilliantly deployed, and never, ever abused or exploited.

Anyway, Rooster does a handstand in the watertrough, makes himself an eyeopener with milk, a raw egg, and gin, which he throws back, on-stage, and greets the first of the local teenagers who hang around his trailer--for drugs, for booze, for companionship, and for other reasons that become clear as the evening progresses.  Narrative tension is provided by an eviction notice posted by two officious officials at the beginning of the play, the disappearance of a 15 year old girl in fairy wings, and a character's will he/won't he departure for Australia.  But "what happens next?" is the least important point in a play that is essentially a very funny (and incredibly profane) examination of the place and importance of tradition, folk ways, legend, and place in a culture that privileges change, originality, facts, and movement.  It's not against modern culture, mind you, or even truth (although it takes a loosey-goosey attitude towards facts).  In fact, it's fine with mobile phones and emigrating to Australia and sex and drugs and rock and roll, the more the merrier.  It's not much for bureaucracy and laws that allow for the expansion of housing estates through wooded land and don't protect the poor and helpless nearly as well as they think they do.  It is also strongly in favor of storytelling. 

Rooster cycles through many roles in this play:  St. George, the Dragon, Merlin, Jack (doesn't matter which one), Gypsy Davey, John Barleycorn, even Falstaff.  But the one thing he is consistently, drunk or sober, is a storyteller.  It's what the kids who hang with him love in him, even when they're laughing at him.  It's certainly why I love him, despite his casual verbal cruelty, his inability to take responsibility for his actions, his general fecklessness.

The other actors are almost necessarily overshadowed by the giant in their midst. I loved the Professor, who wanders Rooster's copse searching for a dog that has either recently run away or died long ago, seeing old University colleagues in Rooster's troupe of teenagers, quoting great swathes of English poetry in and out of season.  The teenagers are uneven.  I liked Danny Kirrane as  Davey, a plump school-leaver working at a slaughterhouse, not the brightest crayola in the box, but very much himself and content with that, like one of Shakespeare's rustic clowns.  Ginger, a would-be DJ who has a lot more depth and character than he's willing to admit, is well-served by Mackenzie Crook.  The rest of them need to work on their Wiltshire accents and making their characters less colorless.

I can't imagine what a New York audience is going to make of this play.  St. George's day?  Morris dancers?  William Blake?  Giants and gypsies and strange accents, Oh, my?  The language veers from the lyrical to the foul, sometimes in a single sentence.  Anybody who is profoundly offended by the c-word had better stay away, because it's all over the place, mostly applied to men the speaker doesn't like.  Plus, it's 3-and-a-bit hours long.  Several people in our row left at intermission.  But I gotta say that I didn't hear a line I would have cut, or a moment I thought didn't add its bit to the mosaic effect of the whole.  I wasn't bored for a moment, and when it was over, I cried.  It's a play that says things that need saying, and I bet you can get tickets on TDF.

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