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