top of page

Putting 'The Juice In Jerusalem' - The New York Times

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

DURING rehearsals in 2009 for the London production of “Jerusalem,” Jez Butterworth’s play about outcasts in modern England, the actor Mark Rylance drove one Sunday to the rural village of Pewsey to look up Micky Lay, a retired builder who was the inspiration for Rooster Byron, Mr. Rylance’s drug-dealing, authority-defying character. The encounter did not go well. Mr. Rylance walked past the wrecked cars in Mr. Lay’s yard and knocked on his front door, where wood had been nailed over shattered glass. Mr. Lay answered with an “Awww what’a ye want?” said Mr. Rylance, who identified himself and asked for a word. In colorful profanity, Mr. Lay told him to go away.

“But I’d learned a lot from Robert Bly about how you approach monster-sized men, and one idea was to take gifts,” Mr. Rylance said, referring to the poet and translator. “Two Sundays later I went again, this time with a bottle of whiskey, and he was very nice.”

Inside the house were three teenagers smoking joints and celebrating the birthday of a raven-haired, 17-year-old beauty whom Mr. Lay had given a bedroom because she didn’t get on well with her mother. After three hours Mr. Rylance came away understanding Mr. Lay’s own, unexplained desire to surround himself with young people.

“Sometimes your parents can’t see what’s special in you, can’t see the gold within the mud of your life, but another adult can,” Mr. Rylance said during an interview as he prepared for the Broadway run of “Jerusalem,” now in previews. “That’s Rooster’s great gift. He eats the truth about people the way we eat bread. He wants to see the kids around him burn on their full gas, to connect to oil fields inside themselves and be flaring.”

Mr. Rylance is too modest to describe himself as on full burn, but New York theatergoers know otherwise. Three months after he concluded the Broadway revival of “La Bête” at the Music Box Theater, best remembered for his antic, 25-minute monologue as the street performer Valere, Mr. Rylance is accomplishing the rare feat of returning in the same season (and at the same theater) in another leading role. As a result many Broadway insiders believe he could end up with two of the five Tony nominations for best actor next month. He won that Tony in 2008 for his first and only other performance on Broadway, in the revival of “Boeing-Boeing,” and his work in “Jerusalem” was praised with virtually every superlative imaginable by theater critics in London, where Mr. Rylance, at 51, is frequently described as the best stage actor of his generation.

As well as one of the more eccentric. As a boy he did not speak in full sentences until he was 6 because he had trouble sounding out words; instead he began a lifelong immersion in fantasy and make-believe acting games with other children that helped him learn how to speak. Accepting the Tony in 2008, he baffled many watching the CBS telecast by reciting an obscure poem about conformity by the Midwestern American writer Louis Jenkins. Mr. Rylance has questioned the authorship of Shakespeare’s work and even wrote a play about those doubts, titled “The BIG Secret Live — I Am Shakespeare — Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show.” And during a two-hour interview, he read at length from Paul Kingsnorth’s book “Real England: The Battle Against the Bland,” and seemed almost giddy explaining how brewery corporations had taken over local pub after local pub where people once spent nights enjoying their meals and sharing stories beside roaring hearths.

Enter Rooster Byron. He is the tragically Falstaffian heart of Mr. Butterworth’s three-hour elegy to old England, where forests were the dominion of fairies like Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, of rascals like Robin Hood and, now, of Mr. Rylance’s antihero. “Jerusalem,” in other words, is about very English things, yet the play may well resonate with American audiences. At least Mr. Rylance and his producers hope so, given that — Broadway’s substantial Anglophilia notwithstanding — a full appreciation of “Jerusalem” depends on understanding the socioeconomic trends that Mr. Kingsnorth laid out in “Real England.”

“Every one of us is worried about how ‘Jerusalem’ will fare on Broadway,” Mr. Rylance said as he curled up in an Edwardian armchair in the lounge of the Algonquin Hotel, taking off his shoes and tucking his socked feet beneath his underside. “Will people understand the dialects? Will people understand that it’s not about Palestine and Israel?

“I just wish audiences could come without needing to be told what they’re going to experience, without the producers’ worrying about whether we have the right poster and words outside the theater. But the financial risk is so much greater here than in London.”

As seen through an American lens “Jerusalem” is on one level a classic libertarian showdown. A retired Evel Knievel-like daredevil, Rooster has been living for 29 years in a mobile home in a Wiltshire wood in southeast England, but the town council is moving to evict him because well-to-do homeowners are sick of his patch. Rooster is a kind of Pied Piper, drawing the young and the old to his clearing — in part for his drugs, but also because he is a romanticized embodiment of the William Blake poem used in the defiantly patriotic song that provides the play’s title:

Bring me my bow of burning gold,

Bring me my arrows of desire,

Bring me my spears o’clouds unfold,

Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

’Til we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

Rooster is the sort of meaty role that might normally go to household-name stars who are the insurance policy for commercial Broadway these days. But the producers of “Jerusalem” said there was no way they would have brought over the play without Mr. Rylance, for whom Mr. Butterworth wrote the role.

“It wasn’t even a discussion,” said Sonia Friedman, the prolific British producer of plays in the West End and on Broadway, including “Boeing-Boeing” and “La Bête. “I’m of a generation that didn’t see Scofield’s Lear, Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. I’m of a generation that will say, I saw Mark Rylance’s Rooster.”

Mr. Rylance’s late bloom on Broadway was a long time coming. Born in Ashford in southwestern England, he was 2 when his family moved to Connecticut, where his father took a teaching job; his parents later both taught in Wisconsin, where they flew the Union Jack and gave tea parties on the Fourth of July. There Mr. Rylance performed in his first major Shakespearean production, as a 16-year-old Hamlet, with his father playing the First Gravedigger. At 18 he left the United States for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, where he arrived, he said, with “a Midwest accent, a Midwest hairstyle and a Midwest sense of humor.” (In conversation the soft-spoken Mr. Rylance can betray the flat accent and overstressed vowels of the region.) By 1982 he had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his long career in Elizabethan drama took off.

During his company debut in one such play, “Arden of Faversham,” a hallmark of Mr. Rylance’s aesthetic also took hold. He is known as a born improviser, relishing every chance to play with tone, pauses and body language in the pursuit of bringing a performance to fresh life. But this landed him in trouble one night when, playing a manservant in “Faversham,” he stood up during a scene and confronted his character’s master — taking the other actor by surprise, since usually Mr. Rylance would lie cowering on the floor in that moment.

“As we were walking around to the next scene backstage, the actor — who I shall not name, but who was a big man — threw me up against a wall and said, ‘We’re not all [expletive] improvisers,’ ” Mr. Rylance said.

“‘This notion that a performance is ‘frozen,’ it’s a horrible phrase, like a frozen dinner or something,” he added, referring to a theatrical term used by directors and producers. “I’m comfortable acting in a particular key, but I benefit by mixing up the notes within that key.”

Blending carefully constructed verse with a freeing sense of “play,” a word dear to Mr. Rylance, has paid off in a slew of critically acclaimed performances, including his gleeful turn, at 33, as Benedick in Matthew Warchus’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which won Mr. Rylance an Olivier Award (London’s answer to the Tonys). Two years later he became the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, where he was known for bringing Shakespeare back to his roots with all-male productions, including his own memorable turn as Olivia in “Twelfth Night.”

For “Jerusalem” Mr. Rylance found a soulmate in the director Ian Rickson. Late one night in a rehearsal room of the Royal Court Theater, Mr. Rylance said, the “Jerusalem” cast took part in 90 minutes of “research” by acting out a scene that is only referenced in the play: a barroom celebration after the teenage character Phaedra is crowned queen of the town fair. That party takes place a year before the events in the play, but, in hindsight, sets them in motion.

“Amazing stuff was gained,” Mr. Rylance said. “Actors who have less to say in the play than I do learned a lot about their characters. Mackenzie Crook, who plays my best mate, Ginger, was playing at some dance moves that you see now. And I was able to discover things about Rooster’s friendship with Phaedra, about Rooster’s feelings for her stepfather, Troy. Now one word or one gesture during the play can set off a memory of that improvisation, and it feels like new life running through you.”

No question that, for all its length, “Jerusalem” has Mr. Rylance energized. He has not performed Shakespeare since leaving the Globe in 2005, but he is planning to act in a double bill of “Richard III” and “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2012 there and then in New York, as well as new projects on Shakespeare with his wife, the composer Claire van Kampen. (He has two stepdaughters, one of whom is the admired Shakespearean Juliet Rylance.) For the last six years he has also been writing a play about the industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, which he wants to finish; he hopes to play Frick. Yet what makes Mr. Rylance’s wide, expressive eyes truly leap is the idea that “Jerusalem” might find an audience on Broadway, which “Boeing-Boeing” enjoyed but “La Bête” did not.

“In this play I’ve got to smoke four joints, drink half a bottle of whiskey, take a lot of speed, put my head upside down in water, but the hardest thing for me is thinking about whether audiences will be as excited about ‘Jerusalem’ as we are,” Mr. Rylance said. “But really, I have to put it out of my mind. It’s the same reason why I don’t read reviews. If I start focusing on the feedback, it’ll lock me in a cage.”

bottom of page