British productions that make the splashiest crossing to Broadway tend to undergo linguistic repackaging. The big new hit War Horse, for instance, had its foreign language dialogue translated to English for American consumption.
How bold, then, for Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the raucous comedy that has just opened on Broadway with most of its original London cast intact, to insist on retaining its Englishness. A purist would argue that it must be so: this story set in contemporary Wiltshire is an anti-hymn to an idyllic view of Englishness, a vision embodied in the song “Jerusalem”, which, according to a programme note from the production’s able director, Ian Rickson, “is held very dear by the English people”.
Maintaining purity, even of anti-heroics, comes at a cost. The play contains myriad English references that draw few laughs in New York. Usually, such intentionally hard-to-grasp trappings on Broadway would ensure the stamp “snob hit”. But the down-and-out status of the play’s characters immunise them from that dreaded epithet.
Mark Rylance’s Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the central character, bashes official culture as pugnaciously as he brawls with the ragtag band of drug-taking outsiders who assemble at his mobile home deep in the woods.
The play’s attempt to summon a dormant pagan spirit beneath England’s modern persona struck me as unpersuasive. And the meagre plot – Rooster’s home is about to be bulldozed by the local authority – runs on fumes.
What drives the play is the comic current coursing through the excellent ensemble. Mackenzie Crook, as the third-rate DJ Ginger, provides a wry counterpoint to Rylance’s dynamo central performance. Following his bravura turn at the Music Box in La Bête last autumn, Rylance is having a triumphant mini-season at this theatre.