Johnny “Rooster” Byron was born with a bullet in his teeth. He knows the giant who built Stonehenge, has jumped over thirteen buses, and pumps magic blood. In Jerusalem, what we know about Johnny is the stuff of folklore, the tall tale of a mythic creature who manages to stumble around drunk while simultaneously holding court with a collection of wayward young miscreants. Remarkably, there is no story in Jerusalem. It’s a three-hour long experience in this weird world. A bit like a dream that has no structure but captivates you nonetheless. What we see in this universe is the haven that Johnny creates for these kids, which – in spite of the drugs, booze, and squalor – is purportedly safer than what they would experience at home.
And wow – Mark Rylance. Among the performances I’ve been lucky enough to see in my life – Ian McKellan as King Lear and Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois among them – Mark Rylance as Johnny Byron ranks high. The opening scene in which Johnny, somewhere between hung over and still wasted, shimmies around his littered yard to a jazz record he inexplicably owns was a dialogue-free expression of his bizarre joie de vivre.
Much of the play is long, at times even tedious, and the narrative seems directionless. At each of the show’s two intermissions, I found myself wondering what conflicts were in play, what elements of the story were perched on any sort of precipice. Prior to the third act, the play seems to be a collection of scenes, some of them touching and some wickedly funny but all seemingly disconnected from any arc with meaning. And yeah I asked myself a few times, “what the hell am I missing?” or “would I appreciate this more if I had a quaalude?””
The redemption, for me, came in the play’s final moments. In part because Mark Rylance took the performance to a new level of brilliance, and in part because Jez Butterworth finally connected those loose threads. After nearly three hours of what Johnny calls an “alcoholic bucolic frolic,” we realize that there is a powerful surge coursing through this man. Approaching eviction from his illegally parked trailer and the only real home he’s ever known, Johnny conjures the spirits of giants to come to his aid. At once, he is propelled by a godly spirit. He’s not crazy after all. Or maybe he is. Butterworth doesn’t leave us satisfied, but he suggests just enough to make us believe that there is more to this man than far-fetched stories and belligerent drunkenness. There is magic in him. And with that awakening, what seemed arbitrary becomes profound.