A London Letter: Jerusalem
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 Mark Rylance in 'Jerusalem'. Photo: Simon Annand

A London Letter: Jerusalem

In the first in a series of dispatches from London, Karen Fricker teases out questions of national identity – specifically, Englishness – raised by Jez Butterworth's 'Jerusalem'. This award-winning play produced by the Royal Court tackles a complex and important subject. 

Most people who follow theatre in these islands will have heard about Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, which premiered at London’s Royal Court last July, transferred to the West End in January, and is heading for Broadway next year. Much of the buzz has centred around Mark Rylance’s astonishing performance as the play’s ambiguously heroic central figure, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, for which he rightly won the Olivier Award for Best Actor this week.  Having caught up with Jerusalem, I can’t but agree that this is a massive performance by one of his generation’s most gifted and protean actors. But what interests me most about Jerusalem are its subject matter and theme – what Butterworth is saying and doing via the fascinating, complex character of Johnny Byron, and the dramatic world he inhabits. 

There was something unexpectedly, naggingly familiar to me about Jerusalem, and it wasn’t just that it represents a very traditional form of theatrical storytelling: naturalistic staging and acting, and an adherence to unities of time, place and character straight out of Aristotle. The familiarity had to do with the play’s unapologetic focus on national identity via this conventional set of playwriting conventions, something that’s rather out of fashion on today’s British theatrical landscape. If I say the play feels much more in the tradition of modern Irish than contemporary British playwriting, this is not to co-opt Butterworth to another national tradition, but to suggest that one of the play’s unique contributions is to re-assert the possibility, and the importance, of a contemplation of nation on a contemporary London stage. With Jerusalem, Butterworth has named the elephant in the room of today’s UK theatre (and culture more broadly): Englishness.

It’s clear that Butterworth is nailing certain colours to the mast (specifically, white and red) as soon as you enter the auditorium: the safety curtain is a tattered St. George’s flag, and, as prescribed in the play script, the words ‘The English Stage Company’ are emblazoned across the top of the proscenium. This is the name, of course, of the theatre company that has inhabited the Royal Court Theatre since its inception over 50 years ago; Butterworth is consciously placing the play in the Royal Court tradition of topical new writing, but he’s also framing his play as a meditation on Englishness.

The initial quick-fire succession of short scenes furthers this impression: a teenage girl dressed as a fairy wanders on stage and sings a verse of the titular hymn – which is, of course, an unofficial English anthem whose lyrics, by William Blake, refer to a mythical visit of Jesus to Glastonbury, close to where Butterworth sets the play. Suddenly and shockingly, electronic music blasts and the curtain raises to reveal a wild rave in the near-dark – bodies jumping and gyrating, voices screaming. The curtain slams down and back up again, and it’s bright daylight in the same setting: a pretty but rubbish-filled copse whose central feature is a battered Airstream trailer, in front of which stand two frowning uniformed government officials in reflector vests. The fact that this moment provokes a great guffaw from the audience is testament to the comic synergy of Butterworth’s script and Ian Rickson’s production, and their sharpness of storytelling: in less than two minutes the production has established its central theme – and also made fairly clear which side of the counterculture versus establishment conflict it’s siding with.
The officials are there to issue a final eviction notice to Johnny Byron, who’s squatted this land for 27 years and was the host of the previous evening’s festivities – and, it’s implied, a copious number of previous such gatherings. Johnny scares the functionaries off the land by barking inside his trailer like a rabid dog, the first of many clues that he may not be fully aligned with the human race.

Rylance’s appearance and gait when he finally bursts out his front door furthers this impression: following the cue of the character’s nickname, ‘Rooster’, he stands with the barrel-chested posture of a cockerel, but walks with a pronounced and painful limp. This is the result, we discover, of his past career as a daredevil motorbike jumper in which he broke every bone in his body and was once left on the tarmac for dead (but rose again, layering on another Christ image).
Rylance enacts Johnny’s morning-after rituals (dumping his full head into a bath of cold water; creating and consuming a revolting cocktail of milk, raw egg, vodka, and a wrap of speed) with a hilarious combination of ferocity and hung-over fragility. His sidekicks and hangers-on start to appear, literally out of the woodwork, and the scene and stakes are quickly established; it’s St George’s Day in Flintock, Wiltshire, and the annual village fair is starting up just offstage. Johnny refuses to go, though, and sets up his encampment as a site of alternative entertainment – not just because he’s been barred from every pub in town, but because, we slowly realise, this is an exceptional day. The eviction notice represents the end of a long campaign by inhabitants of the symbolically-named New Estate to get Johnny off this land, and the larger arc that Rylance’s performance sketches is that of an aging fighter mustering the energy for one last battle.

Butterworth presents local community as a set of clapped-out traditions in which people continue to engage with a sense of ironic resignation: Johnny’s friends know that Flintock Fair is pants, but they still go anyway, high on cheap speed. One of the motley gang - Tom Brooke’s hilariously gormless Lee - is making a break for it by emigrating to Australia, but his buddy Davey (Danny Kirrane) can’t see the point of greener pastures: ‘I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop.’ The publican Wesley (Gerard Horan) pitches up dressed like a Morris dancer, but it turns out that this engagement with traditional Englishness is a gimmick foisted on its unwilling employees by the brewery chain that now owns the pub; the only way that Wesley endures the humiliation is by scoring some blow from Johnny

Butterworth is raking rural Englishness rather over the coals here, but he speaks from a position of insider knowledge (when he’s not writing plays, he raises pigs in Somerset). The crisis he describes is surely relevant to community life in all parts of the developed world, including Ireland: a tension between a sense of local tradition and the encroachment of globalised homogeniety, which then paradoxically becomes paralysing (if what’s out there is the same generic crap as is closing in on us here, than what’s the point of leaving?).

What’s intriguing is the alternative that Johnny presents: Butterworth sets him up as a representative of a pagan, mythic, ancient tradition more aligned to nature than culture; a spirit of Englishness that is being mowed down by bureaucracy, overdevelopment, and small-mindedness. Johnny’s mythic antecedents are the Pied Piper (he calls his hangers-on his ‘rats’) and the poet who shares his last name. He is a classic Byronic hero: rebellious, excessive, lusty, arrogant, self-destructive, and (possibly) doomed. And he is a tale-spinner: Butterworth has created a brilliant vessel here for his own amazing gift of the gab. Johnny’s flights of narrative fancy include being held hostage by Nigerian traffic wardens, and a sexual encounter with ‘all five birds off of Girls Aloud’; his pièce de résistance is the story of an encounter with a giant he met “just off the A14 near Upavon”, who gave him a kettle drum with which to call for giant-sized help if he gets into “any bother”.

Butterworth’s construction of the character – and Rylance’s playing of him – are fascinatingly ambiguous: Johnny is a reprobate who deals drugs to teenagers, but it’s also strongly suggested that he’s protecting at least one of his young female acolytes from an abusive stepfather. His lust for life, sense of humour, and charisma are magnetic, but you’d probably not want him living over your back fence – and the hypocrisy of such nimbyism is one of Butterworth’s points. Butterworth ups the ante further by making Johnny part Romany, suggesting that to equate Englishness with Anglo-Saxonism (as does, for example, the British National Party) is to ignore a diversity that has existed for centuries.

'The least-represented and least-interrogated culture on these islands is that of England itself.'

Not everyone will take to the representation of Englishness that Butterworth suggests. But the play does important cultural work by challenging the prevailing wisdom that big state-of the-nation dramas, such as those written by the Howards Brenton and Barker and the Davids Edgar and Hare in the 1970s and ‘80s, are no longer an adequate or appropriate response to contemporary life under the conditions of global capitalism. Such arguments are most often made by London-based scholars when discussing something called ‘British theatre’; the question they beg is exactly what nation is being talked about. I would suggest that the tendency to speak in a generalised way, on behalf of Britain’s multiple national cultures, in claiming the demise of the state-of-the-nation play is in fact a symptom of a London-centric parochialism that fails to recognise that the least-represented and least-interrogated culture in these islands is that of England itself.

Even if Jerusalem slightly overstays its welcome (it’s just over three hours long, with two intervals), its epic qualities are all the more admirable because the subject it tackles is so important and complex. It’s also hard not to admire the unfashionably hopeful quality of Butterworth’s ending – hopeful for those, at least, who’d like to believe that England would be a lesser place without the anarchic, pagan spirit that Johnny Byron represents. As the bulldozers close in, Johnny is left alone on stage, and calls in his last favour. Pounding on the kettle drum, he incants the names of his forefathers, all the gypsy Byrons before him. Just as the curtain starts to fall, we hear massive footfalls, and the ground begins to shake. The giants are real.

Karen Fricker is a lecturer in contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is deputy London critic for Variety, US.

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, runs at the Apollo Theatre, London, until 24 April. www.royalcourttheatre.com




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