Anear the Covid, comfort in the stalls. In any case, it was last year’s favorite theory: that post-pandemic theater, seeking safety by turning to musicals and familiar plays, was in danger of becoming lukewarm. Here’s a week that proves the conclusion wrong. Two revivals – a revival of a brilliant 13-year-old production, a complete revamp of an 82-year-old piece – are both thrilling and disturbing. Both are essential.
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem first burst into the royal court in 2009, bringing luscious tongue rolling, a cast of wayward new spirits to the stage and 3D sensuality (the smells reeked of the boards). Mark Rylance’s performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron has proven to be one of the most magnificent acting happenings of the past 20 years.
Centered on a caravan dweller/drug dealer/free spirit and his followers – frowned upon, opposed and ultimately attacked by the residents of a local estate and the council – the play swings beautifully, painfully between celebration and lament. Today, his hedonism is more marked by alarm.
Director Ian Rickson preserves his original staging without embalming it. Ultz’s design features the same clearing, where the action buzzes but the air seems still, and where, thanks to Mimi Jordan Sherin’s reflected lighting, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the glow is fading or increased. Certain references – including a joke about “Spooky Spice” – make it a striking portrait of its time. Other aspects took on a darker, sadder hue. In the post-Brexit refugee era, the slaughterhouse boy who views anyone outside of Wiltshire as a foreigner becomes a more prominent figure. In a post-#MeToo world, young girls walking around sniffing and flirting seem more clearly threatened.
Mackenzie Crook is once again subtly nostalgic as a perpetually disappointed budding DJ, playing with the zipper of his jacket as if it were an instrument. Indra Ové is particularly memorable as Rooster’s former lover, Dawn, caught between toughness and melting. Still, it’s Rylance who makes it a St. Crispin’s Day moment: do you think damn you weren’t there. His combination of physical and verbal agility is unique. He does a handstand in a drinking trough, shakes a firelighter like a juggling toy, suggests his air of a rooster with elbows in the shape of wings. He delivers his magic and his madness with passion: he is the man who, a stone’s throw from a Little Chef, meets the giant who built Stonehenge. A master of pause and apparent stumbling, his words spring out of a blur of hesitation and chaos, blazing into life against a dark backdrop, like the room itself.
Everything on corn is green is right, for the National and the nation. Not green but ripe for this moment. Emlyn Williams’ 1938 play shows the UK as the divided country it still is. It features a teacher: when did the need to learn seem most pressing? This teacher is a single woman: the scene – as implied Scandalville last month – realizes that not all husbandless women have lost their lives. Dominic Cooke’s production rewires the drama so that its historical significance is shown, its autobiographical element made alive, its currency made vivid.
In the center, Nicola Walker – she from The split and Unforgettable – plays the teacher, Miss Moffat: Williams, a terrific phraser, described the real-life character she was based on as having “eyes like a boxer punching a punch bag”. Walker captures exactly that: never shaking or shaking but accelerating everything around him (although having, it turns out, a blind spot). Arriving in a Welsh village, Miss Moffat finds that 10-year-old boys working in the pit cannot read or write. They speak Welsh: might as well be in a foreign country, grumbles one of the local tofs. She takes on a particularly gifted boy – an essay in which he talks about coming out of the darkness of the mine gives the play its title. She teaches him Greek, she enrolls him in Oxford, she takes him away from his old life.
It’s a story full of feeling, bordering on sentimental, and which, in its later stages, has several unlikely twists. But he’s not psychologically brutal – Williams knew the dangers of savvy – and Cooke saves him from his troubles with a big wheeze. A man in a tuxedo revolves around the evening, coming from the sequins and the ballroom, falling back into memory: the playwright builds the play before our eyes, delivers stage directions and stops the action once to replay it.
It is a device that gives relief to the sometimes blurred focus and to period characters such as the squire in a padded shirt. It also serves as a reminder that this is the playwright’s own story: Williams himself starred in the first production. Around the stage, a chorus of men, singers disguised as miners, shoot at the heart. One of the niceties of Cooke’s production is that the men don’t sing the loud Men of Harlech (as in the Bette Davis film by corn is green) but Calon Lan, the song that wishes for a pure heart. They light up the stalls.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Maryse Seacole also seeks to show how the past and the present merge: in this case through racism and misogyny, which cross generations. Drury is a true playwright: her 2019 play Fairview plunged audiences into disarray with a tremendous twist, confronting viewers with their own expectations of black-and-white characters. It has a magnetic subject in Mary Seacole, the pioneering nurse sometimes nicknamed “the black Florence Nightingale” (why not the other way around?). Nadia Latif’s production has Kayla Meikle as a constantly burning actor – bold and visionary in a series of incarnations.
Maryse Seacole is a series of impassioned fragments in which Seacole is imagined as an estate of Marys: the historic figure in starched black dress and lace cuffs, patronized by Nightingale, and as her latter-day NHS counterpart in blue uniform, treated with a casual patronizing by white visitors. Despite vivid flashes – in particular, the reconstruction of a practical emergency response to a terrorist incident – the piece is often too explicit. Esther Smith and Olivia Williams perform with sparkling skill, playing a multiplicity of roles. Yet the century-leap scenes, surmounted and followed by long explanatory speeches at the start and end of the evening, reinforce rather than weaken. The stark central statement of a black figure, looking towards England, proved true: “They need us but they don’t want us.” He deserves a better game.
Star ratings (out of five)
corn is green ★★★★★
Maryse Seacole ★★
Jerusalem is at the Apollo, London, until August 7