My last weekend in Europe, I spent four glorious days in London. It was the perfect way to temporarily distract myself from anticipating my imminent travel back to America in all of its holiday glory, a thought that seemed to render me incapable of sitting still. I had been to London several times before as a teenager, but this semi-familiarity with the country didn’t make the local accents, hearty comfort food, quaint street names, and regal historical landmarks any less enthralling. The metro (“tube”) was clean! The store clerks smiled and called us “love”! Everyone spoke English! I was perfectly content to merely walk around the city, taking in my surroundings and reveling in the friendly atmosphere.
On top of multiple walking tours, hilarious hostel acquaintances, organized pub crawls, and an evening at a festive Christmas Village, one of the highlights of my London experience was the bus ride back to the airport, when I had the great fortune to sit near an entertaining elderly British couple. Never have my eavesdropping skills been more useful— from my prime seating in the row behind them, I picked up comedic gems like, “I’d be dead in the ground without my morning toast” and “Old man, you’ve never had a radiant smile on your face in your life”. The all-time winner was when the husband announced, “I myself can scarcely go 45 minutes without using the toilet”, to which his wife replied, “Well then use the tub once in a while, Albert, it’s finely crafted.”
But the absolute best experience within my weekend in London was attending a performance of Jerusalem in the West End, starring Tony Award Winner Mark Rylance. The show had been running all summer in NYC while I was interning there, but ensconced as I was in the world of Sleep No More (another mind-altering New York based theatrical production), I never had the time or money to snag tickets until August, when the show was in its last week and thus completely sold-out. However, I’d heard rave reviews from respected friends and seasoned reviewers, so when I saw that the London tour had openings during my brief visit, I didn’t hesitate. What followed was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
As someone who perpetually immerses herself in the world of imagination via books, plays, and film, I have always been (annoyingly) opinionated about how timeless, legendary characters ought to be. I remember devouring descriptions of R.P. McMurphy, Sydney Carton, Atticus Finch, Holden Caufield, Rhett Butler, and so many others, thinking all the while, what if someone could actually portray him, bring him to life? Obviously several renowned actors did just that, to great success in many cases, but I don’t think any actor has invoked the truly epic more than Mark Rylance in this particular production. With his performance, I underwent the opposite of my typical experience— his actions actually created descriptions of remarkable clarity in my head. As audience members, we understood what he was doing and why, as he managed to convey the squalid glory of mankind that is heralded so often in literature, but never fully realized onstage.
Rylance plays slovenly mischief-maker Rooster Byron, a middle-aged British drunkard living in a trailer in Wiltshire County. For a more comprehensive detailing of the show, check out the NYTimes review here, as I cannot pretend to do it justice:
I will say, however, that if you ever have the chance to see this show, run, don’t walk. Rylance gives the best theatrical performance I have ever seen on stage or screen, and coming from a theater nerd such as myself, this means a lot. There are moments in this show that chilled me, awed me, tickled me, humbled me, and the themes of sacrifice and struggle will linger with me for quite some time. I was cognizant of the fact that, much like Rooster and his doomed path within the play, Rylance himself also takes a physical and metaphorical beating as an actor, all for the sake of us, his audience. I was one of many who sat, simultaneously spellbound and horror struck, as I watched the painful descent of a man fighting to defy the obstacles closing in around him, who held on to his bawdy humor and fiery strength until the end.
In one particular scene, Rooster’s former lover (and the mother of his young son) berates him, asking how he will manage to worm out of yet another impending brush with the law. As audience members, we have already seen Rooster’s roguish charm get him out of trouble time and time again; yet we can also feel the quiet desperation mounting inside the theater as he recognizes, like any swaggering Peter Pan, that eventually his reign must come to an end. Instead of offering a valid plan of action, Rooster merely asks the woman to stand across from him and look into his eyes. Reluctant and cynical at first, she is wary as she gazes at him five feet away, while he continually murmurs “deeper” in a half-confident, half-panicked chant.
Finally, after an instant of shivering silence, he whispers, “did you see that?” and we are not surprised to hear her gasp “yes”, because yes, we know it too, something did change, something magical did momentarily glimmer behind those bloodshot eyes. As soon as she utters it, the spell is broken and he falls towards her, visibly relieved that someone recognized that harnessed inner spark that, for all his outer bravado, he is terrified might not be there. But only a fool could be blind to the compelling power palpably emanating from Rooster Byron, and it was that power that stayed with me all throughout the plane ride home to France.
On my final morning in Paris, I was completely packed and ready for my staff room check. However, when I approached the Lucien Paye employee seated behind the front desk, he was less than ready to look over my room and allow me to sign out. Apparently the antics of the Parisian dorm system operate much like those embedded in the plot of Lord of the Rings; and, like Frodo Baggins, I was forced to embark on a quest before receiving what I initially wanted. He asked me to go out and get him a croissant at the bakery two blocks over, a request I found very bizarre (not that anyone has to twist my arm to get me into any food store). The man handed me three euros and said in French, “Get one for you and one for me”. Now we were in business.
As I marched back from the patisserie, my face undoubtedly smeared with warm chocolate, two men standing on the side of the road called out, “bon appetit”. Not twenty feet away from here was the first place that a stranger had chastised my friend and I for munching away on the street (see blog post “Take a Picture” from September for the full account), and as I grinned and kept walking, I savored both the croissant and the triumph of the moment, wishing I didn’t have to interact with anyone else until I was safely in the air, wanting those friendly and well-fitting words to be the last French ones I heard. I had come full-circle.