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Jerusalem Is Going to Tell You a Story, and You Should Listen, Dammit

So I’ve been mulling about how I’m going to talk to you, dear reader, about the play Jerusalem. Because you should see it. But you should see it for reasons that involve what’s between your ears and not what’s between your legs. Of course, our tendency here at The Craptacular is to conflate the two motivations on a pretty much regular basis—because that’s human, and frankly, a generally less boring way to see the world—and in this case, it’s no different, but the former thing is more important than the latter.

I have no real desire, however, to go all Ben Brantley on you here. You can read his review—a complete crazy rave, which we knew beforehand because he was sitting two rows in front of us when we saw it—elsewhere. Plus, I can’t write as well as he can, and he’s writing for your grandparents anyway. For you, too. To be sure. But I’d like to give you some more specific perspective.

So let’s get this out of the way, right off the bat: You should see this play because John Gallagher, Jr. is in it, and because you love him. Because he staggers across the stage for three hours, messy-haired and smoking pot, with his pants slipping off his hips, revealing the waistband of his American Eagle boxers, the word AMERICAN positioned, hilariously, right in the front. His English accent is a mess but his performance is just right. He plays Lee, a boy on the run from the culture that raised him. And he is not, by any stretch of the fangirl imagination, the star of this show.

Jerusalem is about that culture, and brace yourself, American, because this culture is not yours. Jerusalem is about England, about its literally storied past and modernized present, and about a guy who lives in the woods in a trailer. John Byron (Mark Rylance) spends most of his time drinking, doing drugs, and hanging out with the natty pack of teenagers who venture out to his trailer to party. They also come for the stories—and Byron tells lots. About giants, scrapes with the authorities, sexual escapades with The Spice Girls. He’s a kind of over-the-hill rockstar to them, living outside the law and flouting the local authorities, who are trying to boot him and his trailer—and his chickens; there are live ones on the stage—off the land to make way for a housing development.

Are you catching the drift here? Byron is the last true rebel in England—a character culled straight from the over-the-top stories that Byron himself likes to tell. There’s a lot more. The whole story is, no kidding, an allegory of St. George and the Dragon. And if literature makes your heart flutter the way that it does ours, you will find much to adore in Jerusalem—besides Lee’s boxers.

But the show is made by Mark Rylance’s performance. Somewhere between a limping Keith Richards and an ogre, Rylance hollers and swaggers across the stage, the undisputed king of all his mildly stoned, wayward subjects. And Byron’s stories, no matter how fantastical, are so convincingly and grippingly told. As the show itself builds to its intense conclusion, the trick at hand is so simple, and so deftly played: beautiful words spoken by a master storyteller.

And of course, Jerusalem holds a lot of appeal for those of us who can see shades of ourselves up on the stage somewhere—the sloshed party girl intent on oblivion, the runaway hellbent on seeing what else is out there in the world, the prom queen with the overprotective big brother. And it shows us that even the most modernized, iPhone-clutching person can access something really old, and really simple–the power of his or her own story. And sure, maybe that’s your grandmother’s play—although she might be grossed out by parts of it—but it’s undoubtedly yours, too.

Photo: Simon Annand

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