LONDON – There’s mighty, and then there’s Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem,” a show so strongly associated with its part that it almost feels superhuman. It’s as it should be for a play about a larger than life character named Johnny Byron, who demands a completely fearless actor and has one in Rylance.
None of this will surprise those familiar with this piece by Jez Butterworth, which premiered with Rylance in the lead role at the Royal Court here in 2009; two years later it moved to Broadway and Rylance won the second of three Tony Awards. In an exciting revival that opened Thursday at the Apollo Theater (until August 7), everything feels enriched by time.
Now 62, Rylance is significantly older than a man described in the text as “about 50.” But such is this actor’s boundless energy and enthusiasm that one can imagine him returning to the role again and again: Johnny defies all conventions, even those of age, and so does a wildly versatile actor approaching this social rebel as a spirit family.
The creative team, led by Ian Rickson, the most empathetic of instructors, is the same as it was in 2009. In honor of this race, it is not a museum work kissing on previous kudos, but a vital experience with a revitalizing effect . Standing ovations are common here these days, but at Wednesday’s final premiere it possessed a unique fervor that made Rylance jump up and down with childlike joy at the curtain call.
In the show, Johnny, who goes by the nickname Rooster, walks with a stopping gait that goes inexplicably. Physical obstacles, it seems, hardly matter to this tattooed, barrel-breasted condemned man, who performs a headstand within minutes of his arrival on stage. He then immerses a mixture of vodka, milk and a raw egg if Rylance is to be thrown into the audience. (On Wednesday, someone threw the shell back, prompting the star for a delicious double take.)
Johnny’s big gestures are those of a man whose defiantly ruthless existence is under serious threat. While the rural community where he lives holds its annual spring festival to mark St. George’s Day, Johnny is persevering with the beat-up trailer he has long called home. A magnet for a cross-section of local hangers-on, including a talking professor (a beautiful ride from Alan David) and underage female teens hungry for spliffs and sex, Johnny’s illegal camp will soon be buried. His young son comes to visit, only to be led away by the child’s disapproving mother (a convincing Indra Ové).
Not only does Johnny face a final order from officials to move on, but he must confront the anger of Troy Whitworth (a fearsome Barry Sloane), whose 15-year-old stepdaughter, Phaedra, has sought refuge with Johnny. Troy will go to great lengths to claim her back.
It is Phaedra (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who opens the piece and sings the English hymn that gives “Jerusalem” its title, and whose lyricist, William Blake, is referred to during a play Trivial Pursuit later. Worthington-Cox delivers this most moving melody in front of a fall curtain showing the cross of St. George, flag of England. But the piece itself transcends nationality to speak to any disgruntled outsider who is not easily silenced and who gathers acolytes like moths into an unquenchable flame.
I’ve now seen “Jerusalem” five times (including on Broadway), and Rickson’s current company – several of them teammates with Rylance – is as good as any predecessor, and sometimes better: Worthington-Cox is the most moving Phaedra I have experienced.
Mackenzie Crook remains particularly heartbreaking as Ginger, Johnny’s friend and ally, whose haunted eyes convey a premonition that his comrade’s days are numbered. Jack Riddiford, a corporate newcomer, brings a boyish appeal to the role of Lee, who dreams of starting over in Australia but is grateful for the breathtaking good times that Johnny has made possible at home.
You can imagine one or two of these characters as ardent supporters of Brexit, even though the idea did not exist when Butterworth wrote the play: The heavy slaughterhouse worker Davey (Ed Kear, another newly hired newcomer) “does not see the point,” he says of other countries , including neighboring Wales.British newspapers are busy rating “Jerusalem” as a defining state commentary whose legacy and influence is unmanageable.Butterworth has stayed out of the discussion and has only said he revived the play, so his young daughter, Bel , could see it.
But such considerations are academic alongside the visceral immediacy of a piece that hovers as high as designer Ultz’s enchanting wood-filled stage that seems to sweep up beyond the theater’s roof. The Great Range is a piece with a performance you might describe as once in a lifetime if it were not so obvious that Rylance’s passion for this part, thank God, seems far from over yet.
Through August 7 at the Apollo Theater, London; jerusalemtheplay.co.uk.