Mark Rylance, after a second standing ovation following the evening performance of Jerusalem at the Music Box Theater, wanted to let the audience know that we had seen this epic-length British play on the day of its action, St. George's Day, April 23. The Irish have St. Patrick's, he said, when they get drunk. But all we do for St. George is feel guilt. I began to understand more about the play I had just seen in that epilogue than in the 3 hours it took to present it. Like the set, a backyard of sorts, a vision of a low rent tag sale, in front of an airstream marked Waterloo, strobe lights hanging off trees, sirens, and like the central character portrayed with great brio by Mr. Rylance, Jez Butterworth's brilliant play is a divine mess.
And I mean that in the best way possible, as in, so is life. The play opens with an angel singing an anthem I remember in my mind's ear, from one of my favorite British bands from the '60s, ELO, that is Electric Light Orchestra: Jerusalem. According to director Ian Rickson's note, William Blake's poem was put to music in 1916, to give faith to British soldiers fighting an awful war:
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have build Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant land.
And just as you are getting into those inspiring lyrics, the curtain gives onto a hellish pandemonium, what looks and screams like a backyard trailer park trashing. Then Johnny "Rooster" Byron (Mr. Rylance) emerges from the trailer, does a line of coke, smokes a joint, downs more alcohol than any mortal could ever consume; you get the picture of one unsavory dude who will and does imbibe anything. That he is sometimes called "rooster" made me think less of cock, than of Jeff Bridges' character in True Grit, Rooster Coburn. Unlike that story, this rooster is not the law. Rather he is wanted by it, and part of the play is his up-yours disrespect. I suspect that Jerusalem plays to deeper understanding for the British, but from the perspective on these shores, the character of Johnny Byron is one of those literary types, grand as he is full of folly, noble as he is full of shit, whose struggle for his place on earth is awesome to behold.
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