Dramatic tension is a necessary element for any thoughtful, serious piece of work. Without this essential ingredient the audience becomes less absorbed with the action on stage. In addition, if the characters are not too intriguing or complex or have few, if any, redeeming qualities an audience’s engagement is even less focused.
These are the two compelling problems with the London import, Jerusalem. Nothing of significance occurs during the three-hour production and you never connect with the assorted social misfits and malcontents populating the show.
The play revolves around Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a drunk, drug dealer, and disaffected agitator whose broken down trailer has been squatting on the public, wooded land of a small English village for decades. He parties out-of-bounds with no consideration for the area’s residents. Like moths to a flame, he attracts underage teenagers; alienated, young adults, and other assorted oddballs to his ramshackle, garbage-strewn site. They come for a hit of whiz (cocaine) and to forget about their pathetic lives in the real-world. The crux of the plot revolves around the impending eviction of “Rooster” from his hole-in-the-wall plot of land. Throughout the play, with his forceable removal lingering in the air like some rotten stench, we hear the depressing and woebegone tales from his so-called friends and past relationships. The stories could be seen as a commentary on small town life by disaffected individuals, but playwright Jez Butterworth doesn’t present a compelling, overly coherent narrative to bolster this viewpoint. Instead there is just a lot of loquacious bantering.
Mark Rylance, who made such an indelible impression on theater-goers last fall in La Bete, stars as “Rooster” Byron. From the start Rylance embraces his character with flamboyant gusto. He is at turns comic, vindictive, and philosophical. He is also almost everyone’s worst nightmare. The problem is his contemptuous and unsubmissive profile is so galling and audacious that you become numb to his presence and shennanigans. The rest of the cast is uneven. However, Mackenzie Crook is effective as “Rooster’s” one “friend,” Ginger. He is sufficiently disassociated from the world outside “Rooster’s” domain. He is a sorry lapdog constantly in need of attention and ridicule. Alan David is mischievous and the personification of eccentricity as the Professor, and Max Baker is lamentable as Wesley, the downcast pub owner.
Playwright Butterworth has crafted a show with much talk, tomfoolery, and even sporadic humor. But the major plot lines never take flight; the characters are just too pathetic and unsympathetic. By the time of the play’s climatic scene I had become so disengaged I really could have cared less at what was happening on stage.
Director Ian Rickson tries to keep the actors busy with bits of buffoonery and heightened promulgations but, in the end, with the characters ruminating and examining their meager lives there’s not much Rickson can do to breathe life into the production.
Jerusalem, three hours of blather better spent elsewhere.