Review: Jerusalem, the Experience
Every once in a while, there comes a script that defines theater for a certain generation. Modern drama had Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Contemporary drama had Angels in America. And up until last year, this generation was defined by August: Osage County. That is until Jez Butterworth wrote Jerusalem. For an American audience, certain references within the script lack the emphasis that it would normally have for a British audience. Yet from minute one to minute one-hundred eighty, the Broadway company of Jerusalem rocked and amazed. Led by Tony winner Mark Rylance, Butterworth’s tale of Johnny “Rooster” Byron on the eve of his eviction discusses the meaning of self and commodity when “shit is about to hit the fan.” While critics and audiences alike continue to praise Rylance’s tour de force performance as Rooster, up until Act III, the play is a genuine ensemble piece. Sure Rooster is at the center of the motley crew, it’s the secondary characters that define the actions Rooster ultimately makes. From Mackenzie Crook’s Ginger to the tag team of Molly Ranson and Charlotte Mills’s Pea and Tanya to the understated Danny Kirrane as Davey, their characters’ devotion played through scene to scene. Jay Sullivan as Lee was brilliant, yet he seemed too pretty compared to the characters beside him. One of the best theatrical moments I have ever witness was going from the opening scene into the official start of the play. Never has a “scene shift” had more of a laugh. This was led by the brilliant direction of Ian Rickson. His staging throughout the play was magnificent and understandable.
After speaking to a British colleague of mine who attended the same performance as me, she informed me of the importance of the William Blake hymn “Jerusalem.” She told me that it has more of a meaning to Brits than the National Anthem and the fact that this may not resonate with an American audience and they still are impacted by the play speaks wonders to the production. And I happen to agree. Sure, I did not walk out pondering life, I did feel changed. It was like an experience I’ve never had at the theater.
And now to the part where I bet I will be ridiculed and told I’m wrong. I was very fortunate to see the two lead contenders for the Best Actor in a Play, Mark Rylance and Joe Mantello. And I still firmly believe Mantello deserved it. Yes, Rylance’s final scene in Jerusalem was stellar and unmatched. Yes, he will always be the quintessential Rooster. But it was Mantello and The Normal Heart that left me utterly numb.
If you missed the Broadway incarnation of Butterworth’s masterpiece, you should be kicking yourself. As I did with August: Osage County, it’s one of those experiences that will never happen again. This play ranks up with the bests and I’m honored to say I was able to see it.