Monday, June 13, 2011

Broadway: Jerusalem

Last night’s Tony Awards have restored my faith in the critical acumen of the theatrical community.  Jerusalem, which had been nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Play, walked away with only one – the one for Best Actor to Mark Rylance for his portrayal of Johnny “Rooster” Byron. To my mind, that award was richly deserved - and it was the only one for which the play was nominated that it did deserve to win.

For a while there, I wasn’t  too sure about my own critical judgment.  I attended the matinee performance of Jerusalem yesterday and was stunned by the standing ovation that the play received at its conclusion.  Yes, Mark Rylance’s performance was brilliant.  And the set was very well-designed.  But the play as a whole, it seemed to me (and to both of my two companions, I might add), left much to be desired.

For starters, there’s not much of a plot.  Rooster is a washed-up has-been of a daredevil, a drug-dealing, alcoholic, pathological liar and child predator, broken in mind and spirit, and now reduced to relying on a motley crew of mostly teenagers for adulation, companionship and financial sustenance.  He lives in relative squalor in a mobile home in the English countryside.  But the times they are a’changing.  A new residential development is sprouting up within hailing distance of Rooster’s abode and the residents of that new community, understandably, would like to see Rooster gone.

It is St. George’s Day in England and the locals are holding their annual county fair and parade.  Rooster has received an eviction notice.  And the rag-tag group around him are bemoaning the fact that things ain’t what they used to be and that this year’s fair won’t hold a candle to those of the old days, back when Rooster was performing his daredevil motorcycle stunts (and shattering his body in the process).

There are a number of subplots but they don’t really go anywhere.  Rooster’s young son and the child’s mother show up for a brief visit and…nothing.  One of Rooster’s hangers-on is planning to emigrate to Australia…or maybe not.  A 15 year-old girl has gone missing…oh, there she is.

To all of which, I can only say: “So what.”  If Rooster suffers the consequences of his actions, should we pity him?  Or even empathize?  Not me.

Or should we somehow “admire” him?  That surely doesn’t seem to make much sense.  And yet, how then is one to explain the critical acclaim that this play has received?

Ben Brantley, the highly regarded theatre critic for The New York Times, for example, has called this play “an enthralling production” and an example of our finding “grandeur in unexpected places” and he describes Roosteras one of the last of the titans, a man who taps our lust for life lived large and excessively, without social restraints” and adds that “he incarnates the spirit of a mythic England that may never have been but that everyone, on some level, longs for.”  Indeed, Brantley writes that “this work takes you places — distant, out-of-time places — that well-made plays seldom do. And it thinks big — transcendently big — in ways contemporary drama seldom dares.”

And in concluding his rave review, Brantley writes:

“Everyone has a hunger to believe in legendary figures (whether it’s King Arthur or Frodo), but these are times of shriveled fantasies. And, really, how can you hero-worship a lying, physically broken-down stoner like Johnny?

“Except that, improbably, you can.”

To which I can only respond: “No, Mr. Brantley, you can’t.”

So what is it really that Ben Brantley sees in this play that I’m missing?  Frankly, I think: nothing.

And I am pleased to see that much of the theatre-going public seems to agree with me.

To its credit, The New York Times invites readers to post their own reviews of plays on its website and so far more that 50 people who have seen Jerusalem have taken advantage of that opportunity to post their own reviews of the play there.  And here are some excerpts from what the last six people to post reviews on that site had to say:

One called it “Absolutely brilliant!” and “an amazing production.”

One said that “Rylance was great…but this three hour play is filled with many subsidiary, unfleshed-out, characters….the somewhat forced giddiness of the ‘debaucheries’ that dominate the first two acts, seemed amateurish, shrill and dull.”

One titled his review “Sound and fury, signifying nothing” and wrote “Not much happens in this play but there’s not much message either.  Like others, I came away somewhat baffled.”

Another titled her review “Much Ado About Nothing” and wrote that “this overwritten sophomoric play contains a bravura performance by Mark Rylance but I for one was not riveted.  After the first act, it dragged on.”

One titled his review "There's No There There," writing that “Mark Rylance is a great actor, but I've never had the chance to see him in a great, or even good, play. For some reason, he seems (lately) to choose material that's way beneath him, of which ‘La Bete’ is the most egregious example, with ‘Jerusalem’ coming in second. This play may have intimations of something mythic, but they remain mere intimations; nothing adds up. My friends and I left the play baffled.”

And the sixth put it most succinctly, writing that “Butterworth and Rylance snookered the critics with this unbearably tedious piece of bombast.”

My sentiments exactly.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Jerusalem last Saturday and although I didn't really understand what Jez Butterworth's point was I thought that it was worth watching for the Rylance performance and for the humor.
    I think most of the audience was also baffled even though they gave the usual standing ovation.
    Some blamed the accents or said they didn't understand the English allusions. One man loudly opined that it was all very well to throw together a bit of Shakespeare and magical mystery but what's the point? "Nobody will admit that they don't understand it.", he said, and I sort of agreed with him.
    It's not Chekov I thought. Why such a large cast when some actors had nothing to say. Maybe it needed a dramaturge to find the conflict and increase the emotional connection. But then it was a hit in
    London and New York. I had to admit that I hadn't been bored at all during the performance.
    On Sunday I woke up with a completely different view. Everything fell into place. The play is about Christ or at least a Christ figure in modern England. He was born to a virgin. He could perform miracles or tricks. He rose from the dead. He lived with sinners. He was rebuked by the morris dancing publican. He was crucified (beaten up) and went through
    the passion (beating his drum). The title explains the play. Although it is set in modern England it could be set anywhere and at any time. Even in Palestine two thousand years ago.
    Rooster tells stories. These stories are repeated and new stories are told creating the myths which may or may not be true.
    We have always created religions and myths. Druids, giants, the English woodland creatures. If Christ returned would we recognize him. Obviously the Jews and Romans didn't two thousand years ago. And how alike was the Christ of two thousand years ago to the image that Christians have today.
    Probably the hardest thing for the audience to accept is the alienation of all the characters. None of them like each other. They have no connection. Rooster feels connected to his forefathers and to his son but it is a connection of blood not a personal connection. We instinctively know that we are alone and
    that we will die alone. Lee can change his name and emigrate but he will still be the
    same person and he will still be alone. That is a problem for existential theater, an audience wants to connect emotionally to the characters but it is uncomfortable to connect to alienation.
    By keeping us amused I think this play does a good job of overcoming that problem.