A London smash hit play, that is about to transfer to Broadway, is the suprise hit of the decade. Jerusalem features a grubby guy who lives off the grid,in a trailer on a patch of suburban wasteland near a public housing project.
Jerusalem sets London theatre alight
A London smash hit play, that is about to transfer to Broadway, is the suprise hit of the decade. It features a grubby guy who lives off the grid,in a caravan on a patch of suburban wasteland near a housing estate.
He is a magnet for the local disaffected youth, and inspires them with his vision of freedom and commitment to ideals they have been starved of all theirlives. The rest of the community hate him and set about trying to get rid of him – a suitable metaphor for the off-grid movement in general.
Each night the sellout crown at the Appollo theatre leave totally fired up by the three hour play. It is a huge hit, yet it is about a subject that you can’t sum up in a sentence. It has two intervals, a 16-strong cast, and some very ripe language.
And although it features a performance from Mark Rylance of the sort that people will tell their grandchildren about, he is hardly a household name. What’s more, he is playing a Romany squatter, who deals drugs and serves alcohol to the youth – hardly your typical West End hero.Yet Jerusalem has fed into the zeitgeist in the most unexpected manner, earning itself an unprecedented standing ovation every night. There aren’t just queues full of people of all ages for the £10 day seats, but for the restricted view “pay what you like” tickets, and for returns. Tickets are changing hands on eBay for treble their face value.Celebrities from Melvyn Bragg and Stephen Sondheim, to the Doctor Whos David Tennant and Matt Smith, to Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow have already sat in the stalls. Those who haven’t been yet are getting increasingly desperate as the show has only one of its 12-weeks left to run; co-producer Sonia Friedman has been the recipient of bouquets as people try to prise their way in.This desperation to see the play has been heightened by the fact that it always had a restricted duration because by the time a theatre had been found to host the production, Rylance had committed to another play due to open in June. While it may have inflamed the tempers of those who can’t get in, this limited availability is part of what has made Jerusalem such an event.Yet Friedman readily admits that when the 356-seat Royal Court, where Jez Butterworth’s play originated, approached her about mounting it as co-production with them in the West End, she had grave doubts that it would thrive. “I wasn’t at all convinced that it was commercial. It fails absolutely every single test,” she says. “But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Then Tom Stoppard sent me a text saying: ‘You cannot call yourself a producer if you don’t transfer Jerusalem to the West End and we don’t deserve to have a serious West End if Jerusalem can’t transfer.’ I thought, he’s absolutely right, I have to be a part of this.”Jerusalem is Shakespearean in its scope and changes of mood. It centres on Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a Lord of Misrule who is facing down the authorities that want to evict him from his illegal encampment in the woods. Through him and his resonant question “What is an English forest for?” the play explores questions of national identity, the decline of rural communities, and the encroachment of the state on the free spirit of an individual. At its core, embodied in Rylance’s charismatic, dangerous performance, is a howl of anguish that a once-proud nation has lost all sense of itself.The moment it started to play to audiences at the Royal Court last July, it was clear that it had struck a chord. Director Ian Rickson explains: “The best new plays are tuned into the collective unconscious. Playwrights are clairvoyant, they warn us what we might become and intuit what we could be. In Jerusalem, there’s something at its heart to do with defiance that really speaks to people.”Its unusually large cast means Jerusalem costs £90,000 a week to stage, but that size and scope is part of what audiences have flocked to see: it is a uniquely theatrical experience that you need to be there to share.This is exactly what the playwright Jez Butterworth hoped for: “I very much wanted to present a real spirit on stage, not an approximation. That’s something that theatre can do which few other forms can.” But he is as astounded as anyone by the play’s success. “You dream that this sort of thing might happen. But I think it shows that people want their theatre to be challenging not palliative.”He first started writing the play in 2002, but Rickson always wanted Rylance in the central role and since he was then running the Globe, it got put back in a drawer. By 2009, its time had come, but when the cast first started to assemble the play was only semi-finished.Rickson says: “I was auditioning actors for parts that hadn’t even been written and directing scenes I hadn’t read. But I accepted that in the middle of it, Jez was generating incredible stuff.”Certainly watching the audience rise to its feet at the play’s close, as Rylance invokes an older, different England, there is a sense in which they are not just responding to the greatness of his performance – though they are – but to a deeper, darker call to arms, a sense of something that lurks at the back of the current election campaign but is never spelt out by any party or politician.It is almost as if Jerusalem, in the supposedly safe setting of the West End, is inviting a consideration of themes too difficult to be faced in any other forum but the theatre.In this way, the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke, thinks it reflects the way in which theatre has moved closer to the centre of the national culture. “Television drama is in a sorry state and the type of originality that used to be there has vanished. Yet people still want to engage with the debate – so that’s why theatre has to be innovative and keep addressing those questions.”When Jerusalem ends its West End run next Saturday, those questions will continue to be asked both in the Broadway run and regional tour that are under discussion
Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site
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