I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land
San Francisco Playhouse may not exactly be building Jerusalem, but they’ve done something far more pragmatic: shown that three-hour plays (complete with two intermissions) can still keep an audience rapt and waiting for more. While easing out to the lobby at the evenings’ end, I remarked to a friend that the play could have been shortened in places, only to hear the entirely appropriate response, “but why?”
Unlike American Idiot, which offers a take on the generalized rage of suburban youth, Jerusalem provides a window into the hero’s journey.
Why indeed. Missing one moment of Brian Dykstra’s performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron would be a loss. While the usual adjectives (Falstaffian) root this character in the tradition of Beowulf and other British heroes, Dykstra’s performance draws as much from a young Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, such was the combination of sexuality, bourbon, and bombast.
The San Francisco Playhouse production kindly provides a sequential glossary delineating the likes of “squaddie”(derogatory term for an off-duty soldier), “Plimsolls” (sneakers), and so forth. This is well worth scanning because Johnny Byron, the retired Evel Knievel-like daredevil, now squatter and drug dealer, speaks in a contemporary Shakespearean patois that draws in not only the crew of misfits around his moldering trailer, but the most jaded theatre-goer as well. We all navigate through such a sea of bad writing that playwright Jez Butterworth’s stunning script reminds us of how much we’ve been missing.
Unlike American Idiot, which offers a take on the generalized rage of suburban youth, Jerusalem provides a window into the hero’s journey. While it could be easy to see these two as bookend pieces from either side of the Atlantic, rage isn’t the motivator in this play. If you were fortunate enough to have an entirely misspent youth peopled with at least one alpha male story-teller, you’ll recognize the heroic impulse is hardly dead. Just as Cambridge used to be peopled with likes of the late Stephen Michael Lovelace and Ian Tonner, this part of Wiltshire County has Johnny Byron, a virgin birth (via sperm contaminated bullet to his mum) and confidant to giants. Although the earth no longer shakes when his motorcycle lands after soaring atop rows of buses, the thundering of giants still echoes in his scrap of woods.
Jerusalem originally opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009, followed by the Broadway opening in 2011. Upon catching the original, some part of Johnny Byron seemed to have inhabited the person of director Bill English, who brought the play to SF Playhouse. We’re grateful that he did, as this heroic production will linger long in the hearts of the audience.