English playwright Jez Butterworth has said that working on a pig farm influenced his play Jerusalem, a long yet absorbing play in three acts directed by Ian Rickson, set in contemporary rural England where the specter of ancient spirits rattles the trees. The play is running at Broadway's Music Box, after having premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre.
Before he worked on the pig farm, Butterworth says, he was a vegetarian. He started eating meat after seeing, or perhaps feeling, what he called “the exchange of food” — slopping the pigs and eventually watching their slaughter. His “hunter-gatherer” argument — that if people are to eat meat, they should witness the killing of the animals they consume — creates the impression of an idiosyncratic, contrarian and unsentimental mind, yet Jerusalem is the embodiment of a conventional and sentimental drama. Perhaps he was referring to the idea of ritual sacrifice, as in Euripides' The Bacchae, similarly about the battle between a hedonist with his destructive allure and the hypocrites of the village who try to tame him. Butterworth didn't elaborate.
He also has noted that he was perplexed when critics seized upon defining Jerusalem as a “state of the nation” play — reminiscent of when Samuel Beckett showed up to a London rehearsal of Waiting for Godot and, when asked about the significance of the title character, replied, “If I knew that, I'd have said so in the play.”
In Jerusalem, however, the title is not some cryptic allusion. It refers specifically to William Blake's 1804 poem “Jerusalem,” converted into a civic hymn with Hubert Parry's music in 1916, and taken by both conservatives and leftists as a national anthem to either the preservation or the creation of an idyllic England, where Christ was said to have once trod.
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills? . . .
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.”
Not only is Blake referenced in the play itself, the hymn is sung at the play's opening by an angel (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) before a backdrop of a faded St. George's Cross, the emblem of England before it was united into a joint kingdom with Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The play unfolds on St. George's Day. All of which lends the impression that Butterworth is being a tad disingenuous when he expresses surprise that people have found his play to be about the state of England.
The hymn sung by the angel dissolves into the blare and blur of a squatter's encampment in Flintock, Wiltshire, in 2011, the scene of some gaudy revelry among drug dealers, yobs and underage innocents on the verge of corruption — all led by a latter-day Dionysus, as channeled by Mack the Knife, into a character named Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance).
On the “morning after,” amidst the foliage and a trailer named Waterloo (set by Ultz), we see the detritus of the wild and trashy party, including the wreckage of a television set that Rooster has no recollection of smashing to pieces. (It takes a cellphone video to awaken him to the possibility of his own carnage the night before.)
The beauty of Rooster as a daredevil character (he used to leap over buses on a motorcycle, sustaining multiple bone fractures) is how he straddles the line between memory loss and the glee of making shit up. He's accused by local authorities of trespassing on “Mr. Pickles' ” property, of cursing him when confronted, of stripping him naked, gagging him and locking him in his shed. Rooster considers the charges for a moment before replying, “It's not ringing any bells.”
Strategically altering reality may be the key to his survival, or whatever it is he's doing in southern England's countryside. He was given a kind of bongo drum, he insists, from a “giant” who happened to be passing by and who claimed to have been responsible for creating nearby Stonehenge. Banging on the drum will summon the friendly giants, he insists to his entourage, who are skeptical of the yarn yet too timid to risk taunting these looming spirits of some fairy tale from ancient rural mythology.
The beauty of Rooster in performance is Rylance's charisma and physical power. It's the second of his two Tony Award nominations this year. (He also is nominated for La Bête.)
He struts in a wifebeater, downing cocktails of gin and cocaine, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, chest thrust forward as if to mask an obvious limp. For a while, the performance borders on being stagey, mannered. But as the play subjects him to a wave of indignities and a physical battering, the mannerisms melt into the hellish reality, and an already gimpy foot becomes eerily twisted, until the entire posture emerges as a kind of monument.
Reality intervenes in the form of two local constables (Sarah Moyle and Harvey Robinson) bearing a court order for him to vacate his corner of paradise that he's trashed up with his hippie commune, a cocaine store that's become party central and a refuge for teens abused at home. A bulldozer awaits to convert this confederation of misfits into a housing estate, propelled by the sundry kickbacks and corruptions that are all too familiar in real estate development worldwide.
Rooster's accusers are so ethically bankrupt themselves that the play simply asks us to question who's worse. This is the formula Euripides employed in The Bacchae, when the god Dionysus arouses the local women into erotic frenzies in the backwoods and must be challenged by the locals — men who are far less interesting than the subject they accuse, and no more moral.
Rooster has been harboring an underage abused girl in his trailer, which raises the real possibility that he's been sleeping with her. So when her abusing stepdad (Barry Sloane) shows up with his band of thugs (Jay Sullivan and Richard Short), it's a showdown of pedophiles. This is partly what renders the sentimental treatment of Rooster's fall so ludicrous.
The other part comes in a scene where Rooster smears the blood from his own injuries onto the face of his son, a child named Marky (Mark Page) — a gesture of empowering the kid with the blood of his clan. This is the same man who may be sleeping with an already abused 15-year-old girl in his trailer — and we're supposed to feel roused by this grasping pretense of nobility? Rylance infuses it with emotional heft, but that does little to resolve the clamorous fakery.
The play is at its best when it paints the whimsical stories of its eccentric characters onto the broad canvas of a national mythology. But it strains to convert a wondrously exotic central character into a tragic hero, against the forces of what? Local pervs? The real estate industry? And that's when it all turns silly.
I still wouldn't miss Rylance's performance for all the world, or at least for England.
JERUSALEM | By Jez Butterworth | Presented by the Royal Court Theatre at the Music Box | 239 W. 45th St., New York | Through Aug. 21 | jerusalembroadway.com