Jerusalem: England’s green chaotic land

United Players is presenting Jerusalem by Jem Butterworth at the Jericho Arts Centre.

Rooster (Adam Henderson) and Professor (Jack Rigg) get their bacchanal on. (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

In 2011 in a forest glade somewhere in Wiltshire, England, lives Johnny “Rooster” Byron in a trailer surrounded by trash. A middle-aged waster, he hosts alcohol- and drug-laced parties for the local teenagers. There’s a new housing estate nearby and the town council wants him evicted. But Rooster is part of a mystical English lineage. He is a Green Man, a nature god, the embodiment of rejuvenating vitality and chaos. “I’ve seen oak trees cry,” he says. “I’ve heard beeches sing hymns.” Two of the girls in his pack are named Tanya and Pea, evoking Titania and Peasblossom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Frustrated with the hypocritical townsfolk who want him gone, Rooster rails, “What the hell do you think an English forest is for?”

Jez Butterworth’s script is hilariously freewheeling and sometimes thrilling. And director Kathleen Duborg’s mostly amateur production for United Players is astonishingly well realized.

Adam Henderson swaggers his way through the three-hour evening as Rooster without ever losing touch of the character’s humanity: his fear — sometimes of himself — and his wounded reactions to betrayal. Henderson is a pro, but where the hell did John Osborne and Marc LeBlanc come from? Osborne plays Ginger, who’s older than the rest of the gang that hangs around at Rooster’s: an unemployed plasterer who wants to be a DJ, he’s just never grown out of the scene. And Osborne delivers a charismatically eccentric and committed performance, hurling himself into Ginger’s wannabe-cool physicality, constantly working his imaginary turntables. And just wait till you see Osborne’s Ginger high on acid and clinging desperately to his relationship with a coconut. LeBlanc plays Lee, one of the younger kids, and he delivers some of the best work of the evening. He’s so authentically goofy and naïve that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I hope this guy knows how talented he is.

I also particularly appreciated Jack Rigg’s performance as Professor, a charmingly vague local antique who wanders in an out of the chaos, linking the revels to earlier iterations, including the Druids’. Rigg makes him elfin. And Martha Ansfield-Scrase, who plays Rooster’s ex-girlfriend Dawn, grounds the evening with her honest performance as one of the play’s few vaguely adult characters.

Director Duborg’s casting is immaculate and a huge reason for the success of this show. Everybody’s workin’ it.

The physical production is also stellar. (If you want to evaluate a director’s work, look for the kind of consistency you see here.) R. Todd Parker’s set is as good as anything you’ll see on a professional stage in Vancouver. With its enormous realistic tree trunks and random car parts, Parker’s design is immersive and thorough— right down to witty details like the stolen garden gnomes and the tacky little rooster ornament that hangs by Rooster’s front door.

Julie White’s costume designs are similarly well observed. For some reason, I was particularly struck by Dawn’s ensemble, its combination of tasteful hippie flowiness and too-large floral rings that remind us that her milieu is tacky.

In his sound design, Matthias Falvai creates bone-rattling effects, including the sound of a plane credibly passing overhead and the thuds that might herald the approach of a supernatural beast.

Now that I’ve spoken at length of some of the evening’s strengths, it’s probably time to admit that it’s not all perfect. Act 1 of this play, which lasts an hour, has no plot. There’s an inciting incident, town wardens nail an eviction notice to Rooster’s door but, after that, nothing happens: it’s all character and texture, which is fun for a bit, but palls.

Fortunately, stakes — and more meaningful relationships — arrive in Act 2 along with Rooster’s ex, Dawn and their young son. A local guy named Troy also shows up looking for his missing 15-year-old stepdaughter Phaedra — and threatening to beat the shit out of Rooster. The looming eviction also gets more concrete.

Thematically, the dangers that bacchanals pose to the young provide the most resonant focus. Rooster argues persuasively that teenagers like to drink and they’re safer doing it at his place than in some freezing bus stop. And Troy embodies the dangers of hypocrisy: he claims that he wants to restore order, but it’s clear that he’s been sexually abusing Phaedra.

That said, there’s surprisingly little sensuality or deep affection in Jerusalem; Butterworth would rather make jokes about excessive appetites.

Still, when Rooster and a young partner dance ecstatically to “Dog Days Are Over” — thanks for that choice, Mr. Falvai — I got goosebumps. And I wanted to join Rooster in his toast, “To Titania, to Woden’s wild hunt … to St. George and all the wild gods of England.”

JERUSALEM By Jez Butterworth. Directed by Kathleen Duborg. A United Players production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, June 7. Continues until June 30. Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Don larventz says:

    Colin: After your review I want to and will see the play, notwithstanding that the first act “has no plot .” I appreciate that you still liked it, sort of, because of the actors’ performances. Don

  2. David C Jones says:

    FYI – you have seen Marc LeBlanc before – he played King Charles the 2nd in Nell Gywnn \

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