Jerusalem is a complex and compelling play by Jez Butterworth and it gets an outstanding production by Outside the March and Company Theatre directed by Mitchell Cushman.
The play has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian morass but harkens back to William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.” The beautiful poem conjures the possibility of an idyllic England where Christ (the holy Lamb of God) once walked on its green and pleasant land. Blake saw England’s pleasant land overrun by dark Satanic Mills. The Industrial Revolution had arrived but the poet undertook not to cease his fight until Jerusalem was built in England.
Butterworth’s place is tangentially related to Blake’s poem with rich references and symbols. Before the lights go on for the play proper and as we are taking our seats we witness a wild party in a clearing in a forest. We hear loud music and see a raucous party with exuberant dancing, drinking and the taking of drugs with bacchanalian abandon.
The play begins and we should make a note about the extraordinary set. There is a dilapidated trailer between two large trees on a set that has turned the theatre into a forest. There are pieces of furniture around the place, graffiti and garbage in this world that is away from the world. Set Designer Nick Blais constitutes a major asset to this stunning production.
We hear a badly sung rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” (to give us some context I suppose) by Phaedra (Shakura Dickson) and then the authorities (Kieran Sequoia and Michael Spencer-Davis) arrive with a long list of citations for Johnny “Rooster” Byron.
Byron is the central character of the play. He is unwashed, drunk, foul-mouthed, a loud drug user and the leader of a group of young people who share his life style. He struck me as a wild Dionysian character with his maenads leading a life of freedom and abandon on the edge of civilization and authority. The patch of forest that he and his followers occupy is on the edge of a town and it is slated for development. The town represents a cozy society of pubs but also a threat to the “idyllic” and fantastical life of Byron in the forest. The play takes place on St. George’s Day, the day of the town fair and the quintessential image of Merrie England.
Kim Coates plays Byron. You have to see many plays before you encounter a performance of such high caliber as Coates’ portrayal of Byron. He struts around the stage, bow-legged, almost never sober or not drugged, growls, scowls and gives a performance that merits the word great. Coates becomes Satan or Dionysus and in the end perhaps a Christ figure and he is able to embody all these characters with incredible sensitivity and power.
Cushman’s direction is impeccable and he manages to provide cohesion and an overall unity to the production that lasts for almost three hours. Ginger (Philip Riccio) plays Ginger, an outsider to the group who is almost a chorus. He thinks he belongs to the life of Byron’s forest ménage but he actually does not. To emphasize Byron’s “other worldliness” Butterworth introduces his wife Dawn (Diana Donnelly) and his young son Marky (David Kohlsmith). Byron is a lousy husband and an irresponsible father.
Byron’s followers are the Professor (Nicholas Campbell), Lee (Christo Graham), Davey (Peter Fernandes), Pea (Katelyn McCulloch) and Tanya (Brenna Coates). The town is represented by Wesley the pub owner (Daniel Kash) and the creepy and probably sexually abusive Troy (Jason Cadieux). They represent individual and ensemble performances of the highest order.
In the end Byron is brutalized and emerges as a Christ-like figure in the torture inflicted on him. Is this what happened to the holy Lamb of God when He tried to build Jerusalem on England’s pleasant pastures? Butterworth’s Jerusalem may have Blake’s poem as an entry point but it has its own exit. And we get a great night at the theatre.
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth continues until March 17, 2018 at the Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/