May 3, 2011

The "Universal" Measure

photo by Simon Annand

Must a play be universal or ageless to be great? Doesn't theater, that most ephemeral of art forms, really live only in the moment and space of a particular performance? Do we watch theater (and by "we" I don't mean only critics, but I am especially thinking of critics and critical viewers) with a double consciousness, one that checks and balances our immediate enjoyment or discomfort against some kind of larger judgment--a voice that wonders, But is it really great? or, Will it stand "the test of time"? Shouldn't the first and fundamental "test of time" for any play be how well it keeps our interest for its immediate running time?

These thoughts have all come to mind since I saw Jerusalem last week, and since I've heard a consistent drumbeat in the more skeptical reviews that have said, essentially, Yeah, Mark Rylance is great and all, but...the play is pretentious/overstated/long/too English, or to put it one encompassing putdown, from Backstage's Erik Haagensen, "three hours and 10 minutes of windy bollocks"–a grisly anatomical metaphor if I ever heard one, and one which, perhaps inadvertently, evokes the play's colorful conception-by-bullet tale (a conceit which, incidentally, Tom Waits told a version of back in 1987).

I know what the critics are talking about, and yet...and yet...I think David Cote is on to something when he struggles to describe what Rylance is doing:
New critical terms should be invented to explain how this actor (previously glorious in La Bête and Boeing-Boeing) transforms voice and body, the way he can underplay and overact in perfect harmony, making the most eccentric business credible and logical. He Rylances.
I couldn't agree more with the palpable sense that I don't know exactly what I saw in Rylance's performance, but I know I saw something. I've not only never seen a performer go further with a performance, I've never had a performer take me further; I wasn't just sitting back and watching him do his virtuosic thing; he brought me along to a place I hadn't been before; I guess that's why they call it "moving."

No, I'm actually not sure if it's a "great" play; I might even actively object to it, if I felt, as Haagensen and others do, that playwright Jez Butterworth is merely "lionizing" Rylance's skeezy drug dealer/gypsy Johnny "Rooster" Byron, or that our sympathy/complicity with his eccentric journey is a simple matter of identification and "rooting" for a character we "like." I don't believe that any great performance is that simple and reducible, actually, let alone about any really great character. And I for one can't look the gift horse of Rylance's performance in the mouth; in this case, it is so much more than enough that Butterworth's play and Ian Rickson's production give Rylance the chance to enact this complicated, irreducible feat eight times a week in our vicinity; I can't be bothered with the quibbles, frankly.

Another way I'd put it is this: When an actor's performance is this capacious, and the world he creates in/with a show feels like a self-contained universe unto itself, as this does, how much more "universal" does it need to be? A visit to the universe that is Rylance's Rooster Byron is among the rarest riches the theater has to offer, and so, yes, I recommend the show without reservation (though, actually, you probably will need a reservation).

And though I certainly wouldn't put Butterworth's play in the same league as Joe Turner's Come and Gone, my feelings about Jerusalem remind me of a realization I had in connection with the Wilson play's exquisite 2009 revival:
As with any powerful theatrical gesture, fully articulated in a richly imagined world, the symbols in Joe Turner don't mean something else–they signify and stand for themselves, within the context of the play; and one measure of a play's greatness is how well the play itself can stand for the world, or a world unto itself.
I can't defend every excess of Butterworth's play, but this world-unto-itself feeling is how Jerusalem played for me.

No comments: