Review: In "Jerusalem", a once-in-a-lifetime performance, again

LONDON — There’s powerful, and then there’s Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem,” a performance so powerfully tied to his part that it seems almo...


LONDON — There’s powerful, and then there’s Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem,” a performance so powerfully tied to his part that it seems almost superhuman. It’s as it should be for a play about a larger-than-life character named Johnny Byron, which demands a totally fearless actor, and has one at Rylance.

None of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with this Jez Butterworth play, 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 renaissance that opened Thursday at the Apollo Theater (until August 7), everything seems enriched by time.

Now 62, Rylance is considerably older than a man described in the text as “about 50”. But this actor’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is such that you can imagine him returning to the role again and again: Johnny defies all conventions, including those of age, as an extremely versatile actor who approaches this societal rebel as a kindred spirit.

The creative team, led by Ian Rickson, the most empathetic of directors, is the same as in 2009. To the credit of this race, it is not a museum piece that rests on past congratulations, but a vital experience with a revitalizing effect. Standing ovations are commonplace here these days, but the one from 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, nicknamed Rooster, walks with a hesitant gait that remains unexplained. Physical obstacles, it seems, matter little to this barrel-chested tattooed outcast, who does a handstand within minutes of stepping onto the stage. He then swallows a mixture of vodka, milk, and a raw egg, the shell of which Rylance throws into the audience. (On Wednesday, someone threw the shell back, prompting a delicious double take from the star.)

Johnny’s excessive gestures are those of a man whose reckless and provocative existence is seriously threatened. As the rural community he lives in holds its annual spring feast to mark St. George’s Day, Johnny remains tenaciously in the battered trailer he has long called home. A magnet for a cross section of local parasites, including a talkative teacher (a nice turn from Alan David) and underage teenage girls hungry for joints and sex, Johnny’s illegal encampment is soon to be bulldozed. Her young son arrives for a visit, only to be taken away by the child’s disapproving mother (a persuasive Indra Ové).

Not only does Johnny face a final order from government officials to move on, but he must face the wrath of Troy Whitworth (a fearsome Barry Sloane), whose 15-year-old stepdaughter Phaedra has sought refuge with of Johnny. Troy will make violent efforts to get her back.

It is Phaedra (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who opens the piece by singing the English anthem which gives its title to “Jerusalem” and whose lyricist, William Blake, is referenced during a game of Trivial Pursuit later. Worthington-Cox delivers this most moving melody in front of a hanging curtain representing the cross of St. George, the English flag. But the play itself transcends nationality to speak to any disgruntled outsider who won’t be easily silenced and gathers acolytes like moths to an unquenchable flame.

I’ve now seen “Jerusalem” five times (including on Broadway), and Rickson’s current company – several of which are remnants, along with Rylance – is as good as any predecessor, and sometimes better: Worthington-Cox is the Most moving Phaedra I have experienced.

Mackenzie Crook remains particularly heartbreaking as Ginger, Johnny’s friend and ally whose haunted eyes convey the foreboding that his pal’s days are numbered. Newcomer Jack Riddiford brings a boyish appeal to the role of Lee, who dreams of starting fresh in Australia but is grateful for the raucous good times Johnny has made possible on home soil.

You can imagine one or two of these characters as staunch Brexit supporters, although the idea didn’t exist when Butterworth wrote the play: Davey (Ed Kear, another newcomer to the cast) doesn’t “see the interest,” he says, from other countries, including neighboring Wales. British newspapers are actively evaluating “Jerusalem” as a defining commentary on the state of the nation whose legacy and influence are incalculable. Butterworth stayed out of the discussionsaying only that he raised the coin so that his young daughter, Bel, could see him.

But such considerations are academic next to the visceral immediacy of a room that soars as high as decorator Ultz’s lovely tree-lined backdrop, which seems to sweep beyond the theater’s roof. This vast scope is of a piece with a performance that you could describe as once in a lifetime, if it weren’t so obvious that Rylance’s passion for this part, thank goodness, seems far from over.

Jerusalem
Until August 7 at the Apollo Theater in London; jerusalemtheplay.co.uk.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: In "Jerusalem", a once-in-a-lifetime performance, again
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