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April 22, 2011


Review: Jerusalem

by Jesse North

A playwright puts pen to paper in order to share a message with the world. It is meant to be received by an audience, weighed, and understood. Yet in the case of a show that has no discernable meaning, where hours of words crash upon the audience like bricks and nothing is derided, something is very wrong. Such is the case with Jez Butterworth’s indecipherable Jerusalem.

Set in the woods of Wiltshire, England (an impressive set by Ultz, with trees that tower to the top of the Music Box Theatre, far beyond where the audience can see), the perpetually drunk Johnny “Rooster” Byron (played expertly by Mark Rylance) resides with his equally inebriated gang of lost boys and girls. This middle-aged soak enables the group of punks who laze around, acting like fools, in an obvious effort to hold onto a youth that has long escaped him. It is also evident at points that this troubled group of delinquents enables Rooster just as much.

The unsavory bunch congregate at Rooster’s trailer, parked in the middle of the forest, day after day, drunkenly carrying on with music blaring. The well-to-do residents of the area that have grown in numbers over the years have had enough of Rooster & Co. and have successfully petitioned the government to throw them off the land. What ensues is Rooster’s passionate crusade, fueled by a bottomless source of pride, to keep his land and his derelict way of life.

The plot is interesting enough. A colorful character with a penchant for spouting tall tales and has a bunch of goofy, younger sidekicks fights wildly to stake his claim on his land. This would be all well and good if Jerusalem didn’t have a running time of three hours. Other than the storyline I have just outlined, the hours of monologues and exchanges is an incomprehensible blur from which I gleaned no value.

Rooster is an antihero. He is an alcoholic who defies the government and his civic responsibilities, enables minors with illegal substances, manipulates his weak ex wife, and is an absent father to his young son. The character has great depth with many layers for Rylance to bite into as an actor. However, the meaning of the play does not live up to the grand size of the central character. I have a feeling Butterworth intended the play to be about many issues. The only one I could clearly hone in on was addiction, and plays like High did a much better job at explaining the conflict and examining it.

Rooster’s punks are an extremely irritating bunch of buffoons who shout, stumble, and cackle their way through Jerusalem’s painful three-hour duration. The actors remain one note throughout, and it distresses me to say this group includes the usually marvelous John Gallagher Jr. Butterworth’s writing does not allow me to care for these characters, therefore it is tedious to have to watch them.

Rylance’s performance as Rooster is one of the most deep-diving, enveloping performances I have ever seen. To say Rylance loses himself in the character is an understatement. Blustery, infuriated, and eventually covered in his own blood (I’m not kidding), Rylance takes Rooster and makes him come alive more vibrantly than any gimmicky 3D movie. I am sure people will be talking about his performance for years to come, but it doesn’t seem to mean much when the material is gibberish.

It is often discussed that theater shouldn’t have to dumb itself down to meet the attention span of an impatient audience. However, a play serves no one if it flies over the heads of the general public to serve the inflated ego of its playwright. Jerusalem falls under the categories of self indulgent and pretentious. There are many people that fear alienation when they are the only ones not nodding their heads in understanding, so they feign enjoyment and claim brilliance instead. So I say this—if someone tells you they loved Jerusalem, they are lying.

Play: D

Jerusalem general rush policy:
Up to two tickets may be purchased per person for $26.50 each beginning when the box office opens.

jerusalem broadway play mark rylance scene

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Linda
    Apr 22 2011

    I thought your review was fair until the last paragraph. People look for different things when they go to the theater, and get different things out of shows, and that’s one thing that I love about theater. I love that you’re not afraid to slam a play that others rave about, and while I’m sure that some people might be afraid to say they didn’t like it, it’s not fair to assume that everyone who loved the play is lying.

    • Apr 22 2011

      Linda, I see what you mean and I agree; when I say anyone who says they loved this show is lying, I am taking a liberty. Maybe all they needed was Rylance’s wild performance, or the truly impressive and unique scenery. Maybe all they needed to glean from the show was the aspect of Rooster’s addiction and mess of a life. But I do feel that there wasn’t much more to draw from this play, and I am challenging others that claim so. I’m glad you appreciate my unfavorable reviews as well!


      • Andrew Broussard
        Apr 22 2011

        I’ll happily take up your challenge. I’ve seen the play three times – once in London and twice here. There are layers upon layers to this play, to the point that I have discovered new aspects each time I’ve attended a performance.

        First of all, not sure where you get the addiction thing. If there’s anything that this play ISN’T about, it isn’t about drug addiction. Rooster drinks and does drugs – but I see nothing anywhere about it being an addiction play. What it IS is a state-of-the-nation play. For England. And that’s a perfectly legitimate reason to not understand it, being that this is not (and hasn’t been for some hundreds of years) England. But the absolutely epic scope of looking into the difference between what we believe as children to the stark realities we face as adults… the way we tend to shun the people who strike out on their own even as we deeply wish we could do the same… the thought that there could, in fact, be magic left in the world. I mean, those are three points that just skim the surface of the play.

        To each their own, of course – I’ve got plenty of friends who didn’t like this show, too. But I will take up your challenge and defend it to my last breath and so will a lot of other people. So be wary of calling us liars – we’ve got centuries of Byron boys at our back, you know.

        • Apr 23 2011

          Hey Andrew, I really appreciate this response. I see your point on the other meanings that Butterworth intended to infuse into this play. While I understand those elements, I didn’t feel they came across clearly enough, which makes a three-hour run time unjustifiable. Thanks for pointing these things out!

  2. Jim
    Apr 22 2011

    I have to object here. You defensively and reflexively indicate that anyone who got anything from this play is lying. You didn’t “challenge” anyone to explain it to you or try to claim otherwise. You simply said that there’s nothing there. And you’re wrong.

    Jerusalem is the ultimate anti-heroical tale–the story of a man who is not likeable and is a joke to many but who represents an anarchic glee mixed with fury that is representative not only of rural England but of adolescence itself. Rooster is surrounded by kids because he never bought into the adult world, and as much as we want to dislike him because of that, there’s something pure and wonderful about his intentions (if not his actions). This embodiment of adolescent id is repugnant to many but only after they themselves have embraced it for a time. Because certainly there’s danger in the rampant hedonism Rooster and his friends partake in, but there’s also a willingness to provide safe harbor (as with Phaedra) when other adults, knowing she’s under duress at home, simply stay out of her way.

    It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking play, a celebration of our wilder impulses that doesn’t deny the ugliness inherent in choosing not to grow up. It’s also wildly funny, deeply felt, and performed with extraordinary talent by its cast.

    Calling it pretentious reads like a defense mechanism. You didn’t understand the play. And that’s fine. Lord knows there have been plays that have flown completely over my head (see: everything Pinter ever did). But I wasn’t vain enough to call them terrible just because I didn’t get them. Give it some more thought. Read some other reviews. I think you’ll see that there was quite a bit of meaning throughout the entire play. It just wasn’t riding the surface.

  3. Mr B
    Apr 22 2011

    I can’t wait to see it!

  4. Steve Schaeffer
    Apr 22 2011

    I don’t mean this to sound like a personal attack, but on a professional level, if you are unable to see beneath the surface plot of a play, and don’t take the time to research a culture that you are unfamiliar with that makes up the world of the play, what are you doing acting as a theatre critic?

    “Jerusalem” is certainly not a play I feel an American audience has an immediate context for since it is steeped in English cultural touchstones which most audiences are unfamiliar with. But I would think part of a critic’s job is to provide that context, not just scratch his head

    For the record, “Rooster” Byron is a flawed hero in the tradition of the great flawed heros of English literature both real and imagined: Falstaff, Robin Hood, Lord Byron, St. George, etc. Rooster is an outlaw who hangs out in the woods with his merry band, concocting tales of real and imagined exploits, the very stuff of English myth and culture. Butterworth’s play is an elegy for these men whose poetic, larger-than-life lives have no place in a prosaic modern world. The extinction of Rooster’s world is the extinction of English tradition. I saw the first preview and figured this out merely by thinking about what I saw, and questioning why certain elements in the script were there. Shouldn’t you attempt to do the same instead of bashing anyone who actually finds intellectual rigor enjoyable?

  5. Apr 22 2011

    Thanks for such an honest, intriguing review, Jess. I really admire your making no apologies for your feelings. I also have to say that I’m an Anglophile myself but found myself completely incapable of connecting with Butterworth’s “Parlour Song,” which I found self-important, cold, and muddled, so while I can’t say whether or not I’d agree with you on this play, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  6. Apr 22 2011

    Would also like to add that, if this is indeed a “state-of-the-nation play for England” and has less significance here, perhaps the transfer to Broadway wasn’t the best idea?

  7. Jonah
    Apr 27 2011

    I loved Jerusalem and I’m not lying!

  8. Biff
    Apr 27 2011

    It’s always funny when people who do not understand something extrapolate that it is not understandable in the general case. And by funny, I also mean sad. Sorry, but your vain, dumb confidence that “nothing is derided [sic]” from this very interesting (and really not very difficult or experimental) play makes you look like a buffoon.

  9. Brian Stein
    Apr 27 2011

    If before you wrote your review you did not check out the poem by William Blake that Phaedra sings at the top of the play, and do a little digging about the whole idea of New Jerusalem, you should have abstained from writing your review. I will be surprised if the show, despite its glowing reviews, will find an audience because most theatre audiences are too dumb to think about issues and ramifications. I saw Arcadia the night before — now there is a play that even I have to confess said little to me, but given the playwright and his history and credentials, I would never say it was a play to be dismissed.

  10. May 16 2011

    Saw this review quoted on TV!

  11. May 17 2011

    I saw it quote on TV too! Well, now I did. And I agree with someone up above; I’m really glad you don’t apologize for your feelings and thoughts. Everyone is allowed their opinion, but I’m glad you take all the opinions with a grain of salt.

  12. Jun 6 2011

    I saw this play a couple of days back and am sad to say it flew clear over my head. I loved Rylance’s performance – he completely became his character – but not enough to watch for 3 hours. I did get the whole anti-hero bit but it came across as neither something to envy nor admire. Indeed, even his band of hangers-on cared to hang on only for the drugs and alcohol and had no respect or real fondness for Rooster as proven by them filming themselves pissing on him. Which, to me, killed any connection I had begun to make with Blake’s Jerusalem. They weren’t a merry band. They had no cause, just or otherwise. And they weren’t happy simply as they were either, shunning society’s rules, etc. The whole thing took the long way around to nowhere.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say those who claim to like it are liars. I just wouldn’t ever take any theater recommendations from them.

  13. Keith
    Jun 15 2011

    I LOVED this play, I would definitely see it again! it was an amazing ride. Mark Rylance is a force of nature who definitely deserves that Tony!

  14. Mike
    Jun 28 2011

    I saw the play last Saturday and also didn’t understand it but thought it was worth watching for the Rylance performance and for the humor. I think most of the audience was baffled. Some blamed the accents or didn’t understand the English allusions.

    On Sunday I woke up with a completely different view. The play is about a Christ figure in modern England. He was born to a virgin. He could perform miracles or tricks. He rose from the dead. He lived with sinners. He was rebuked by the morris dancing publican. He was crucified (beaten up) and went through the passion (beating his drum). The play asks if the story of Christ is true. It could be. We have always created religions and myths. Druids, giants the English woodland creatures. It asks if Christ returned would we recognize him. Obviously the Jews and Romans didn’t two thousand years ago.

    I think the hardest thing for the audience to accept is the alienation of all the characters. None of them like each other. They have no connection. Rooster feels connected to his forefathers and to his son but it is a connection of blood not a personal connection. We instinctively know that we are alone and that we will die alone. We can change our names or emigrate but we will still be alone That is a problem for existential theater but I think this play does a good job of overcoming it.

  15. Joan Saunders
    Jul 17 2011

    I saw this pay a couple of days ago and enjoyed it very much. I would…I am English! This play is so full of English humor and colloquial expression that it must be very difficult for an American audience to understand most of the dialogue. Maybe it is not a play that transports well from England to America. My three American friends that saw the play with me were just as confused as most of the people making the comments here are. One of the main points that seemed to be overlooked is the fact that Rooster is a Romany Gypsy. This is mentioned at least a couple of times in the play. Gypsies were believed to have certain mystical powers and were a people that chose to ‘opt out’ of normal society and live in their own style and culture, which is exactly what he did. Many were very charismatic and attracted young drop outs, or youth that had as yet little direction in life, into what appeared to be a free an unconventional existence.

    The significance with the hymn (for in fact, it is a hymn in the Church of England which is typically sung on St Georges Day – the day depicted in the play) is that he was being forced out of his way of life by a new estate being built. Estate here meaning a new upscale housing development, which represented to Rooster the ‘dark satanic mills’ (In the hymn, this is believed to mean, the British industrial revolution) returning to push him out of the ‘Jerusalem’ he had defined for himself.

    This is a very ‘deep’ play and if you lose a good portion of the dialogue because you don’t really understand it, then obviously the depth of the play will be lost to you.

  16. ummmmnooooo
    Feb 12 2014

    I agree with this review 100000000000000000%. I thought the whole thing was very stupid and quite pointless. If you want to to see a whole bunch of drugggees and drunkards and stupid meaningless converstaions for three hours then go see this play


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