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Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Great English Play

I saw Jerusalem last night at the Apollo Theatre in London, just as it returns to London after its triumphant Broadway reincarnation, where lead Mark Rylance won the Tony for Best Actor, and where it was nominated for Best Play (War Horse won by a nose).  The sense of excitement in the audience was palpable - Keira Knightly was in the row ahead of me, cuddling up to a handsome young man - it was that sort of vibe.  I came to the play without any sense of how good it was meant to be.  I was in fact a bit put off by the subject - a drunken Romany squatter - and thought it might be an angry State of England Play.  Instead, the last ten minutes are the most purely dramatic and moving I have ever experienced in the theatre, and I have seen hundreds of plays since I was a kid, in New York, Toronto, London, and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Butting up against an extremely raw, ugly and authentic sense of a broken Britain of promiscuous, foul-mouthed, drug-addled youth, and angry, violent thuggish adults, is the play's heart - a big heart of the imagination, wounded perhaps, and like Byron, the main character's namesake, limping, romantic, visionary.  Rylance, a sort of Lear/Fool character in one (he is also equated with Puck, the Pied Piper, and the Lord of Misrule), manages to be both dangerous, and sweet, utterly f--ked up, yet on some sort of deeper spirit level on an even keel.

Mark Rylance as "Rooster" Byron

His story (when not dealing drugs out of a battered caravan to local delinquents and losers he regales them with tall tales) of how be was befriended by a giant who built Stonehenge leads to the display of an old drum that may also be a giant's earring.  If it is beaten, all the great giants of England will come to the rescue of this lost, beaten, and despised "Gypo" as he is tauntingly called.  Terribly funny, very smart, and poetic (the language at times has the lyricism of Maxwell Anderson), this work rebuilds a green and pleasant land in our better selves, and recalls the lost myths and depths of rural England.  This surely is the great play of our time.
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