Review: In ‘Jerusalem,’ a Once-in-a-Lifetime Performance, Again
LONDON — There’s mighty, and then there’s Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem,” a performance so powerfully connected to its part that it feels almost superhuman. That’s as it should be for a play about a larger-than-life character named Johnny Byron, who demands an entirely fearless actor, and has one in Rylance.
None of this will surprise those familiar with this play by Jez Butterworth, which premiered with Rylance in the lead role at the Royal Court here in 2009; two years later, it transferred to Broadway and won Rylance the second of three Tony Awards. In a thrilling revival that opened Thursday at the Apollo Theater (running through Aug. 7), everything feels enriched by time.
Now 62, Rylance is considerably older than a man described in the text as “about 50.” But such is this actor’s boundless energy and enthusiasm that you can imagine him returning to the role again and again: Johnny defies all conventions, including those of age, and so does a wildly versatile actor who approaches this societal rebel as a kindred spirit.
The creative team, headed by Ian Rickson, the most empathic of directors, is the same as it was in 2009. To this run’s credit, it is no museum piece coasting on past kudos, but a vital experience with a revitalizing effect. Standing ovations are commonplace here these days, but the one at Wednesday’s final preview possessed a singular fervor that had Rylance jumping up and down with childlike glee at the curtain call.
In the show, Johnny, who goes by the nickname Rooster, walks with a halting gait that goes unexplained. Physical impediments, it seems, barely matter to this tattooed, barrel-chested reprobate, who performs a headstand within minutes of his arrival onstage. He then downs a mixture of vodka, milk and a raw egg, whose shell Rylance tosses into the audience. (On Wednesday, someone tossed the shell back, prompting a delicious double take from the star.)
Johnny’s outsize gestures are those of a man whose defiantly reckless existence is under serious threat. While the rural community in which he lives is holding its annual spring fete to mark St. George’s Day, Johnny tenaciously stays at the beat-up trailer he has long called home. A magnet for a cross-section of local hangers-on, including a loquacious professor (a beautiful turn from Alan David) and underage female adolescents hungry for spliffs and sex, Johnny’s illegal encampment is soon to be bulldozed. His young son arrives for a visit, only to be whisked away by the child’s disapproving mother (a persuasive Indra Ové).
Not only is Johnny faced with a final order from government officials to move on, but he must confront the wrath of Troy Whitworth (a fearsome Barry Sloane), whose 15-year-old stepdaughter, Phaedra, has sought refuge with Johnny. Troy will go to violent lengths to claim her back.
It’s Phaedra (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who opens the play, singing the English hymn that gives “Jerusalem” its title and whose lyricist, William Blake, is referenced during a game of Trivial Pursuit later on. Worthington-Cox delivers this most stirring of tunes in front of a drop curtain depicting the cross of St. George, England’s flag. But the play itself transcends nationality to speak to any disaffected outsider who won’t be easily silenced and who gathers acolytes like moths to an inextinguishable flame.
I’ve now seen “Jerusalem” five times (including on Broadway), and Rickson’s current company — several of them holdovers, with Rylance — are as good as any predecessors, and sometimes better: Worthington-Cox is the most moving Phaedra I have experienced.
Mackenzie Crook remains especially heartbreaking as Ginger, Johnny’s friend and ally whose haunted eyes convey a premonition that his buddy’s days are numbered. Jack Riddiford, a company newcomer, brings a boyish appeal to the role of Lee, who dreams of starting afresh in Australia but is thankful for the raucous good times that Johnny has made possible on home soil.
You can imagine one or two of these characters as avid supporters of Brexit, though the idea didn’t exist when Butterworth wrote the play: The sweary abattoir-worker Davey (Ed Kear, another cast newcomer) doesn’t “see the point,” he says, of other countries, including neighboring Wales. British newspapers have been busily assessing “Jerusalem” as a defining state-of-the-nation commentary whose legacy and influence are incalculable. Butterworth has stayed out of the discussion, saying only that he revived the play so his young daughter, Bel, could see it.
But such considerations are academic next to the visceral immediacy of a play that soars as high as the designer Ultz’s ravishing tree-filled set, which seems to sweep up beyond the theater’s roof. That vast reach is of a piece with a performance you might describe as once-in-a-lifetime, if it weren’t so evident that Rylance’s passion for this part, thank goodness, seems far from over yet.
Through Aug. 7 at the Apollo Theater, London; jerusalemtheplay.co.uk.