By Kenneth Jones
30 Apr 2011
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Jez Butterworth's critically acclaimed English play, Jerusalem, which began as an English Stage Company production at London's Royal Court, has been regarded by some as a State of the Nation play looking at the decline of England. At three-hours-long, the humor-laced ensemble drama is packed with references to myth, Romantic poetry, nature, innocence and experience, country rituals and the supernatural.
The Broadway engagement — again starring Mark Rylance as Johnny Rooster Byron, a rogue, a storyteller, a host, a glutton, a king and a fool — reunites most of the British troupe, plus Spring Awakening Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., who plays Lee, a small-town lad who, with a tribe of young people, serve as satellites to Rooster's sun. We talked to Gallagher about the dense and rich character study (or is it an allegory?) of Jerusalem the day after its April 21 opening.
As an American digesting it, I was busy trying to decode it. Everyone thinks it's a sort of State of the Nation play or that it's about England — but, at heart, it's kind of this big, juicy character study, isn't it?
JG: Yeah, I think that if you talk to Jez, the playwright, there is a lot that went into it about that countryside lifestyle and people that live in these small places. England is just now feeling the affect of corporate globalization and the need to tear down these trees in the countryside to build houses, or build a shopping mall, or whatever. So there is that to it, but for everything that it stands for, it really is just a lovely story about these amazing kind of larger-than-life characters. Like any good play, it's not really over until the viewer gets a chance to go home and sit with it for a while.
You have that — like you said — kind of "decoding it" and "translating it," because it is so culturally specific to that region of Wiltshire in England. I think a big fear amongst our creative team was how is it going to read over here? How is it going to play? It had a very successful run in London, but that can sometimes not mean anything for a transfer to the United States, and vice versa. Shows that have done really well [here] — new American plays, or new American musicals, or what have you — have gone to London and had a very short shelf life. It's always a bit of a risk to bring something over, and it's been thrilling to see how much the New York audiences from first preview onward…are really having a great time. I really like how you said that it's like a buffet, that it's like a meal. It really is like this three-course meal, because each act it just gets richer and richer and richer, and pulls out so many surprises along the way. When I first read it, I remember just each time an act ended, I thought, [I should] take a break and go get something else done. I ended up reading it in one sitting. I couldn't put it down. I was completely transfixed, and that was just from the page, and from Jez's writing. But the way that Mark Rylance brings his character to life is just so monumental and epic. And the way that Ian — our director Ian Rickson — has staged it, and given it such a kind of spontaneity and freedom onstage, that is really liberating for the performers. And I think that's contagious for the audience as well. I feel like by the middle of the second act, there is kind of the dissolve, where it's just this great story, that we are both helping each other to tell.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
I don't want to suggest that it's a play that is a strenuous puzzle for people, but there are culturally specific references embedded into the script. The play takes place on St. George's Day, for example. There's a sign on Rooster's mobile home that reads "Waterloo."
JG: Yeah, totally. I read the play back in October of last year and I fell in love with it instantly. And for me, reading it as an American, the things that I didn't fully understand, there was something that I loved about that — about the mystery of it. About not exactly knowing what everything was, but Jez is such a great writer, that I feel with any great writer, it almost doesn't even matter what language you are speaking if it is told with a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of spirituality and pathos. It all kind of comes across, and when I read it, even the things I had to Google or look up to make sure I knew what they were, I always found, surprisingly enough, that I was pretty close to getting it right, even though I had no idea! I knew nothing about the kind of Wiltshire slang or anything out there, and then I just went in and auditioned with Ian, and we had a great time in the audition room together. A couple weeks later, I sat down and had tea with Mark Rylance and Jez Butterworth and we had a conversation about it and they kind of wanted to make sure I that I had digested it and understood it, and that I was game for joining the ensemble because it was a company that had been together for a couple of years, and they have about four new people now, myself included.
We got to go to London to rehearse, and we actually got to visit Wiltshire, the town where it takes place, and meet a lot of locals and talk with them, and that was so, so valuable to be able to do that. It was such an asset, especially, I think, for the American actors, to be able to go there and say we've stood on Wiltshire's soil, and we've met people from Wiltshire, so we can take that to New York with us.
We had an ongoing discussion at rehearsals about, "Should we change this? Should we change that? Are people going to understand it?" And there were so few cuts made. Our stage managers are both American as well, so [the creative team] had a constant discussion about, "Do you know what this means? We know what it means because we live in England, but is a New Yorker going to know what it means?" We were all part of that discussion together about making sure that we made it clear — as clear as it could be — to American audiences without diluting it, or watering it down, or compromising the story, or any of the integrity about having it set where it's set. It's set there for a reason.Continued...