This week I finally got to see Jerusalem. It was just as good as everyone says, possibly better. This is probably about the third or fourth time I have seen Mark Rylance on stage, I have already learned to expect great things: his Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron did not disappoint. From the moment he hobbled out of his caravan, upended himself over a water trough like a gymnast on the bar, and gulped down a mixture of raw egg, milk and vodka, I was hooked. I think the whole audience was.
But this particular performance immediately reminded me of another I was recently similarly impressed by: Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, currently at the Young Vic and, in fact, directed by the same person, Ian Rickson. In that case, the realisation that it was going to be a brilliant production happened more slowly, when, about ten minutes in, it dawned on me that, in spite of the archaic language, I for once entirely understood what was happening, and Hamlet’s predicament. Further, Sheen is the first actor, in the first production, that has actually made me feel the heart of the play, the heartbreak at the centre of it.
Beyond the fact that both of these actors are so good it is almost exhilarating to watch them for a couple of hours, there are some other odd similarities between these two tales, so far apart in time and context.
In both cases the protagonists are men driven by their own internal moral compass, and the tension, and narrative, comes from this being fundamentally at odds with their context. They are both characters that hover on the edge of accepted notions of sanity. Perhaps they themselves don’t have a clear view of their psychological state. Both plays indulge in references to the paranormal, without it ever being quite clear whether this is a fiction of the protagonist’s unbalanced brain, or true magic.
But insane or not, they create interest because their very nature questions the accepted wisdom around them. One of Jerusalem’s central points is to defend a kind of natural order and balance, that might at first glance look like chaos, as opposed to the true idiocy inherent in excessive bureaucracy. We easily identify with Rooster over the local council.
These are individuals alone in a hostile world, local princes whose land is invaded and sovereignty questioned. And both are tragically victorious in defeat. The only possible outcome of such a standoff is carnage – but it is a carnage they knowingly invite, on principle.
They are not easy parts, and the sense of the play depends on the ability of the central actor. This is surely why Hamlet is a classic and Jerusalem sure to be one. If Hamlet and Rooster can’t be made to seem warm, human, charismatic – funny – then the play makes no emotional sense. Hamlet is just a whiny, paranoid, cowardly, mummy’s boy; Rooster is just an offensive, idiotic drunk. Luckily Sheen and Rylance have no problem conveying the brilliance of the mind that is permanently on the edge; the nobility of the man desperately trying to remain true to himself; and the deep sense of humanity that drives both plays. In their hands, Hamlet and Rooster’s struggles are admirable rather than baffling.
I loved both these plays for reassuring me – and sometimes it feels easy to forget – that brilliant doesn’t have to mean obscure; high culture can be accessible, relevant, and funny. The Morris-dancing scene in Jerusalem was genuinely hilarious. Hamlet’s stroppy showdown with his mother reminded us of what he is really, when it comes down to it, upset about. And although emphatically not what they were originally written to do, there is an element in both of them of critiquing the ridiculousness of the global institutions of the 21st century. They do a good job in reminding us that the powers that be don’t have all the answers, and anyway some things cannot be explained, nor should they be.
We will never know whether Hamlet really was mad. It is ok not to decide whether Rooster’s bacchanalian drumbeat summoned the giants footsteps or the rumbling of JCBs. At a time when it is publicly unacceptable to be uncertain about anything (how often do we hear politicians say ‘I am very clear that…’?), such antiheroes offer a more captivating, and human, alternative.