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 Rooster “as 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.