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 short-changed. And that was for a film, what Rylance does is night after soul-wrenching night.)
The problem is that Jerusalem tries to go beyond this and maintain some semblance of plot (there is a missing girl and an impending eviction) and, worst of all, tries to develop political “themes.” These themes can be summarised as follows: housing estates and supermarkets have led to a diminution of the cultural complexity which made England great. Class A drugs and sexual promiscuity are a relief from this monotony, and, properly done, may even be a cure for it.
Whilst I may not personally disagree with some of these ideas, for the sake of both artistic truth and dramatic interest one feels that the playwright ought to have pointed out some of the less sanitary consequences of this libertarian way of life. Wooded glades with a single gleaming metal caravan danced around by pretty young teenagers may seem more vibrant than red-brick new-build and the ubiquitous Tesco Express. However, rotting heaps of rubbish and an environment of petty crime, mental illness and perforated septa, chlamydia and genital warts are less so. And these are just a few of the stage-unworthy, less aesthetically smooth corollaries of the Johnny Byron way of life. Maybe his sort of freedom is worth the price, but the duty of theatre is to make the transaction transparent at the very least.
Politics aside, there is a deeper problem with the single character dominance and that is the lack of conflict. And if drama ‘is’ anything, it is conflict. Oh yes, Johnny Byron is always fighting the “system,” along with his own regrets, darker urges and impotence in the face of the passage of time, but these enemies are abstractions or passing internal states. What one feels the play needs is a continuous counterbalancing weight as powerful and as charismatic as Byron himself. If not a proponent of the status quo, then at least a sympathetic victim of Johnny Byron’s renegade life.
In fact, there is one such character: the embittered single-mother of his child (acted with vehement sincerity by Amy Beth Hayes.) However, her righteous indignation is too easily overwhelmed by Johnny Byron’s alternately swaggering and mewling charms. They are then buried in an over-hasty denoument with an unbelievable and dramatically pointless hint at diabolical forces in his Romany blood.
His gypsy heritage is another strand left unexplored. His pride in his Romany ancestry is what allows him to also claim to be patriotically English without sticking in the ‘right-on’ craw of the play’s politics, but in doing so it utterly fails to address the significance of what this attachment to “soil without blood” might be; just as it ignores the true culture of this blood without a soil.
In fact, all too many of the promising elements that appear in the play are left undeveloped. I have read that Rylance was involved—as was the excellent director Ian Rickson—in the development of the script by Jez Butterworth, and perhaps that is was what allowed it to become as unquestioningly skewed towards his characterisation as it has. Which is not to say the writing is bad—it is at times very funny and often very moving—but it suffers structurally from a lack of narrative drive whilst at the same time being far too predictable.
In the end, though, these are quibbles about a spectacle which really is just Rylance’s remarkable performance. He seems to slide beautifully between stage technique (which animals, the actor in me wonders, was he channeling to find those postures, ticks and jutting-jawed leers) and the raw naturalism of someone manifesting truthful behaviour in imaginary circumstances. If, as George Bernard Shaw said, “self-revelation, raised to the optics of the stage, is the entire art of acting”, then it is certainly all here.
Perhaps this dwarfs my criticisms and merely reveals my own theoretical obsession with the idea of ‘complete’ drama. Perhaps a single voice singing so well can conjure its own counterpoint. Not for nothing did Michael Billington of the Guardian give it four stars and say “I was mesmerised by Mark Rylance’s tremendous performance as Rooster Byron. He is a born spellbinder: a Wiltshire Falstaff and… just as Shakespeare’s Falstaff has a cruelty rarely brought out in the theatre, so Byron is not exactly a rustic role model… Much of the greatness of Rylance’s performance lies in the way he captures the twin aspects of Byron’s character.” Perhaps that is all the conflict this drama needs.
Returning to the personal, a couple of years ago I wrote and acted in a play called The Pendulum, of which Billington’s review ended thus: “while it is refreshing to find a new play that gets away from bedsit angst, one wonders why Fiske-Harrison has tackled this subject now. If there are contemporary parallels, they are not obvious, and one comes away with the sensation of having seen an accomplished, but oddly impersonal, historical play.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s once said of great art, that within it ” there is a WILD animal: tamed.” And there is certainly a sense of that in this production of Jerusalem. I fear my own piece better fits the description of his own attempts at artistic creation: “the product of a sensitive ear and good manners, an expression of understanding (of a culture, etc.) But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open—that is lacking.”
Perhaps that is now why I find myself in the last arena left in the world, with only a sword and a piece of cloth training to face a bull (see my piece for Prospect on the art of Spanish bullfighting). And perhaps, had Johnny Byron been born a Spanish gitano rather than an English gypsy, he would have ended up there too, more happily alive. Or more honourably dead.
(Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s The Last Arena – The World of the Spanish Bullfight will be published by Profile Books in February 2011. He details his researches at his blog, www.TheLastArena.com.)