Rylance -- who originated the work at London's Royal Court Theatre -- plays Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a middle-aged motorcycle daredevil forced to give up his risky career after an accident and now living out of a van in Flintrock, a wooded British town not far from Stonehenge. As the play begins, an eviction notice is being posted on his clanging metal door -- in part, thanks to an encroaching real estate development -- not that Byron appears to care.
The drinking, drugging, and womanizing Byron has charmed a group of sycophants who love partying on his littered grounds, including self-appointed sidekick Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), and younger friends Lee (John Gallagher Jr.), Davey (Danny Kirrane), Tanya (Charlotte Mills), and Pea (Molly Ranson). An addled older gent known as the Professor (Alan David) also comes and goes, also partaking -- sometimes unknowingly -- of the many controlled substances that flow freely from the drug-dealing Rooster.
As the work progresses, Rooster's good friend, local pub owner Wesley (Max Baker), attempts to make Byron confront reality, as does estranged wife Dawn (Geraldine Hughes), who arrives with their six-year-old son Marky (Aiden Eyrick at the performance I saw, Mark Page at others) in tow. Events reach their worst, however, when volatile Troy Whitworth (Barry Sloane) comes searching for his 15-year-old stepdaughter Phaedra (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), whom he suspects is shacking up with Byron.
Roaming the stage in an olive drab wife-beater, loose trousers, and goofy headpieces, Rylance slurs his speech, hobbles energetically as a result of the motorcycle crash, and makes it clear that none of the character's indulgences have eroded his sharp mind. Indeed, Rylance's superlative acting technique keeps Butterworth's work vibrantly alive for every second of its three acts, even while some of what transpires over three hours may appear aimless.
Yet, despite the play's seemingly random occurrences, Butterworth definitely has something distressing on his mind -- and it's nothing less than the collapse of English society. Signifiers abound even before set and costume designer Ultz's show-curtain rises, which features a faded red cross against a white background representing England's patron saint George. As the play begins, Phaedra enters to sing much of "Jerusalem" (the music is by Hubert Parry and the lyrics are by the 19th-century poet William Blake), an anthem the British consider a salute to their once-hallowed land.
Indicators hardly stop there. Above the stage's fake proscenium is the legend, "The English Stage Company." On Byron's van is the evocative word "Waterloo." Hanging limply above the van is a flag adorned with England's royal arms. What about the reference to Stonehenge? What about Johnny Byron's name referencing the beloved poet? Is it even too much to say that Byron's' thumbing his nose at the conventional establishment conjures a latter-day Robin Hood ruling over a threatened Sherwood Forest?
While it's possible that Butterworth's concern with his country's past, present, and future might make the play feel "too English" for some American audiences, Rylance's extraordinary performance turns Jerusalem into a must-see experience for any serious theatergoer.
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