To hear Dakota’s interview with director Mitchell Cushman click HERE.
After the past few months being peppered with ads for Jerusalem on the TTC, having Kim Coates steely demeanor staring at me, daring me to see him perform in person as if you need guts and resolve to stomach the intensity he brings on screen now on stage. It has been thirty years since Coates graced the stage, in the time being he starred in every episode of Sons of Anarchy, two Goon movies, a Netflix western series co-starring Jeff Daniels and just about every procedural on TV in the last twenty years. Sure, he is a veteran of film and screen but he was never a slouch in theatre either, he was the youngest Macbeth in Stratford’s history, he shouted “Stelllaaa” in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and much more. His return to theatre is a big deal not because he is a big name, but because he is a terrific theatre actor and the chance to see someone of this caliber so close is rare.
Jerusalem written by Jez Butterworth premiered in 2009 in England and starred Oscar winning actor Mark Rylance, who over the course of a UK and American run racked up a Laurence Olivier and a Tony Award for Best Actor. The play was getting it’s Canadian debut, and the all important task went to Outside the March and Theatre Company. Readers here are probably well aware of OtM as I have previously reviewed their play Mr. Burns a Post Electric Play, their film adaptation of Vitals and interviewed director Mitchell Cushman before. This was my first Theatre Company production, but they come highly respected, as their group is co-lead by Philip Riccio (who stars in this play as Ginger) and actor Alan Hawco (well known for starring in Republic of Doyle).
Entering the space at Crow’s Nest Theatre I was greeted to an ensemble of ravers dancing on the set to throbbing trance music as smoke machines filled the space, rainbow lasers firing like a machine gun and enough fake booze and cigarettes being consumed to legitimately question if this was a theatre or not. Right off the bat Nick Blais’ magical forest set was the focal point of everything. A rusted and faded out caravan sit in the middle of the stage, painted like St. George’s cross ,it positions itself as the pride of England in the eyes of it’s owner Johnny “Rooster” Byron. The stage floor was covered in wood chips, beaten up furniture and the remnants of party supplies. Surrounding the stage and going over the crowd are trees made by hand but look utterly realistic in the setting. As the partygoers danced on while people took their seats, an unfortunate incident occurred where the fire alarm went off from all the smoke in the room. The building was not evacuated and soon enough the fire department OK’d the building to continue the show and things got back rolling along. The partygoers came back out and continued to make out, shotgun beers, smoke joints and cigarettes, and commit general debauchery.
As things settled when the lights went out, a fairy appeared on top of the caravan to sing a capella the first verse of Jerusalem, the poem-turned-hymn by William Blake, that serves as the general inspiration of the show. Knowing that the hymn can be interpreted many different ways but essentially boils down to an English person’s view on England is both unique to them and the wholly correct way to see their country. The story commences with two government officials showing up on Rooster’s stoop to serve him with a notice of eviction as his land is to be turned into a cookie cutter sub development. As they try to film their notice giving, a dog’s barks and growls come from inside the domicile and echoing from a bullhorn. We learn quickly that there is no dog but just the ‘home’ owner making very realistic sounding noises in order to scare off the city officials in a hilarious fashion. When we finally see Rooster he performs a crow yoga position and dunks his head into a tub of water, he sticks his hand under his trailer and grabs out a chicken egg (a great bit of recurring sound design happened anytime someone rustled under the trailer you could hear a squawk emanating directly from the underbelly), cracks it into a glass while he pours in some milk and some sort of hard alcohol and downs it in one messy gulp letting in run down his face and soaking his shirt. This kind of introduction lets you know that you were in for a unique experience.
The first act of the production we are mostly just introduced to the world and characters that populate the story. We learn that Rooster is a nomad who lives off the land and earns a living selling drugs, mostly to teens, and while he is a very intelligent person he doesn’t make the best life choices. His friendship to Ginger (Riccio) seems a little one-sided at times, he constantly calls the kids who idolize his wild ways rats and he frequently gets in fracases at the local pubs (so much so that he finally gets banned from the fourth of four town pubs) and we later learn that his responsibility of being a father is not taken very seriously. The first act ended with the eviction letter being set on fire and thrown into a fire pit, and as the lights went out the red/blue glow of the burning paper filled the room like a candle during a stormy blackout.
The actors were especially committed to their performances, having all mastered British accents of varying regions. Rooster and Ginger being lower class had rougher vocabularies with more dropped suffixes than the rest of the cast. The young people who flock to the woods, including Christo Graham as Lee, Peter Fernandes as Davey, Katelyn McCoulloch as Pea and Brenna Coates (Kim’s daughter) as Tanya all speak as young people do, with slang and their own intricacies that can only come from mastering their characters the way they do.
A great line that encapsulated the actors commitment to their performances was Wesley, portrayed by Daniel Kash who was looking for some pick me up drugs to get him through the St. George’s Day parade, stating “I will humiliate my body for drugs” as he gave a very spirited dance to the mocking audience in front of him before disappearing into the trailer and snorting up so much coke, his brown mustache was white afterwards. All the actors went for it, from Lee’s pratfalls to Tanya rolling in badger crap, to everyone brandishing pathetic weapons to ward off the presumed invasion onto Rooster’s property. I have never seen a group of actors willing to embarrass themselves for the sake of comedy and be open to their flaws to break your heart quite like this group.
The highlight of the show is of course Kim Coates, who in between puffs, hits, snorts and gulps he waxes poetic musings on life, youth and what it means to be a man in his eyes all with an abundance of very British curse words. His vascular arms, chest puffed out, a firm limp and his right foot cocked makes his constant strut like the proverbial rooster he is endearing, were affectations imbued onto his character that showcased the levels to his performance. Coates’ best moments are when he is alone with one other character and he opens up, particularly to Ginger or Wesley and we see what kind of a person Rooster really is, once the bravado shrinks back to reveal a sometimes scared and regretful man.
The play works best once you start thinking about the show as if it took place several hundred years ago. Who owns the land you live on and if you live on the land and someone wants it does that count as a foreign invasion? If you are willing to defend your property are you willing to shed blood, and at what cost does it matter anymore? The play is also better understood if the words to the original Jerusalem poem are known to see how they apply to what Jez Butterworth is trying to say.
While emotionally I didn’t fully connect with the story, the astounding set design, commitment to their roles by the actors, clever sound design and an ending that can’t be described but can only be witnessed in person is more than enough to call this play something remarkable. You most likely won’t see anything like this in your life and even if you walk out not being able to process what you have seen it will make an impact on you.
Jerusalem runs until March 10th at Crow’s Nest Theatre. For ticket information go to crowstheatre.com.
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