Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, has been universally praised by critics, and it recently won the best actor Olivier award for its lead, Mark Rylance. And justifiably so: it is a stunning and fascinating play. However, it is not a “fair review” that I want to write, but an exploration of what was wrong with it, because that is what is interesting to me. What was right with it can only be properly appreciated by going to see the play itself.
The play, set in a sanitised and prettified version of a modern gypsy caravan site in a wood, centres on Johnny Byron, a charismatic, hedonistic, savage, tender and lyrical heathen-god of a man. At least, that would seem to be how the play wants you to see him. He can also be seen as a politically naive, shallow, self-centred, amoral, deluded, jingoistic, narcotics-addled paedophile. Which view you decide to take is dependent on both your politics and your vulnerability to Rylance’s virtuoso performance.
And that performance is everything. In terms of make-up, costume, voice and swagger it is reminiscent of Robert Shaw, mainly in his role as the skipper Sam Quint in Jaws, but with flashes of Doyle Lonnegan from The Sting. In its surprise athleticism and extreme emotional exposure, almost to the point of histrionics, it reminds me most of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. The weakness of the piece is that it allows Johnny Byron to dominate so much, but then fails to take the final step of turning the play into a simple exploration of him. Last Tango, with its terrifyingly intimate scenes of Brando’s own vulnerability—largely improvised by the actor at the time—was in its essence just that.
(Brando was chairman of my own drama school, and I remember hearing with awe exactly what a performance of that level requires. As he characteristically understated it in his autobiography, the film “required a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie.” I watched the film again last week and if his later performances were the price of that one, then I do not feel the art of film was in any way…