Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth (Apollo Theatre revival, April-August 2022)
"What the ---- do you think an English forest is for?"
William Blake’s mystical poem "And did those feet in ancient time," set to music by Parry to become Jerusalem, famously contains a list of unanswered questions in its first verse. The namesake state-of-England play by Jez Butterworth, set on a West Country St George’s Day, is similarly interrogative, raising issues which —for the most part— it does not resolve. Its disturbing and electrifying recent revival at the Apollo Theatre, propelled by Sir Mark Rylance’s extraordinary central performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, seems in retrospect even more apposite than producer Sonia Friedman could have imagined. With its Pagan imagery and vision of social disintegration and identity crisis as experienced in one small corner of England, the play fit the febrile excitement and anxious undertow of that strange bunting and layer-cake summer like nothing else, the moment just before —as the celebrants subconsciously feared — the goddess would take her departure and plunge the collective psyche into an extended Jungian funk. There was a strange valedictory feeling about this new production, even though the revival itself was part of a return to life in Theatreland after two years of silence and darkness. The play began with just the opposite: after a beautiful rendition of Parry’s setting of Jerusalem by Eleanor Worthington Cox’s Phaedra (the missing May Queen whose disappearance provides a significant strand of the dramatic action), the lights went down and a wild strobing rave exploded off the stage. This felt, to those lucky (or unfortunate) enough to be sitting in the stalls, almost like a physical attack, a sudden violent immersion into the hedonistic corner of Wiltshire in which the play is set.
Jerusalem is a devilishly difficult play to write about because of the way it triggers subterranean but frustratingly unspecific cultural echoes, mainly via the character of Byron —Gypsy King/magus, Green Man/John Barleycorn (with an appropriate death-and-resurrection back story involving motorbike jumping), Robin Hood, and Falstaff/wide boy all in one, and much more besides, though none of these symbolisms is ever explored in any kind of thorough way. This, you suspect, is intentional, with Butterworth’s play eventually coming to resemble a sort of postmodern Rorschach onto which twenty-first century English viewers are invited to project their deepest anxieties and neuroses.
Some things, however, are spelled out quite clearly. While the play may ultimately be about many different things, one key aspect is the gulf between two different Englands and, allied to it, the abyss between meaning and cultural vacuum: the old country’s ley-lines, the wild green heart with which Byron is instinctively in sync, thrumming away beneath the Ballardian carparks, council estates, motorways, and Little Chefs. The disparity between the elements of enchantment that wind through the play —the missing May Queen, St George’s Day, the country fair as an erstwhile site of glamour and excitement, Byron himself and his encounters with giants— and the absolute depressing ordinariness with which the other characters contend, the sterility that the local council is trying to impose by evicting Byron from the clearing, creates a disorienting effect. In this England, things just aren’t what they used to be, and Byron is the only character who can help the others to access the past.
The council sees dangerous chaos in the forest clearing, a context in which no doubt dozens of ASBOs could be given out (as I narrowly dodged a beer chucked by Rylance from the stage, I reflected that they might have a point), the audience a forest spirit who provides refuge to local teenagers at risk from the disintegration of mainstream society. One of these is the May Queen Phaedra, on the run from her abusive stepfather, a subplot which contains one of the play’s most touching moments. After her terrible experiences Phaedra is muddled, and mistakes Byron’s protective instincts for something else. He, however, remains determinedly paternal in the face of her squeakily terrified attempt at seduction, and even the soignée Mayfair-type lady next to me snuffled into her champagne at their dance to Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes, in which he lifted her like a doll into a comforting embrace.
Other mainstream characters in the play are made dangerous to Byron by their contrasting lack of individual, familial, or cultural pride: their disturbing combination of attraction to and envy of him, empty vessels clustering around a vessel continually bubbling over. Butterworth implies that the unbearable dissonance between the superficial present and the richness of the England symbolised by Byron motivates their sickening betrayal of him: modern England turning in upon its more authentic self. The revelation shows that Byron’s hangers-on have been purely self-serving all along, and the viewer wonders anxiously whether Butterworth is making a more general point about society’s untrustworthiness and Byron’s vulnerability as a minority figure on its fringes, despite his muscle-shirted superman qualities. The theme darkens with the horrific blowtorch attack on Byron carried out by Phaedra’s violent and self-righteous stepfather Troy, driven by a vicious ethnic hatred.
In the end Byron comes to realise that he has no real friends but his ancestors and the giants, the moment highlighted by Traveller writer Damian Le Bas in an interview with this magazine some years ago: the third-act lights come up on a dapper Romany gentleman lounging in the caravan door, togged up for serious business in a three-piece seventies suit, his eyes full of fatalism. Incidentally, it’s hard to think of any other actor apart from Rylance who has ever managed to convey so much with just his gaze, which he repeatedly turned, searchingly, on the audience throughout the play as if it were an extra character in the clearing. This magnetically drew the viewers into ULTZ’s already intimate set with its real tree and brilliant light design. As Rylance’s performance moved seamlessly from roisterous to delicate to agonised, there were glimpses of the watchful vulnerability that was deployed to such great effect in his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.
The play presents various problems for the viewer to chew on. The Jerusalem of the play’s title is, you come to realise, something wilder and woollier, far more ancient, than Blake’s vision and certainly than that of the future heavenly city in Revelation, nor has it anything to do with Judaism’s homesick spiritual longing for the real city. It does, however, have something to do with nostalgia, that unbearable state of homesickness-at-home. The audience are asked to consider whether Byron’s individualism and cult of sylvan freedom derive from his proximity to the old-time religion that is rarely far away when alternative Englands rear their heads. Here Butterworth humorously takes the nostalgic turn central to most political visions of England to its logical conclusion, in this depiction of the Pagan past irrupting into the bland present, culminating in a shamanistic drumming to summon giants which —together with the noise and vibration of massive footfalls— made every hair stand on end and catapulted the audience out of their seats to cheer and applaud wildly.
The role of controlled substances in Jerusalem, and Byron’s part in providing them, is worth exploring (the theme was underscored by the olfactory design of this production, which unpleasantly evoked cannabis, booze, and other, less identifiable rural and forest-y odours). Long and ultimately rather tiresome academic discussions have focussed on whether Blake came by his visions naturally, via some sort of biochemical abnormality, or helped them along with hallucinogens like other Romantic poets. Are the drugs sold by Byron the modern analogue, the portal to his deep Pagan magic and an England dangerously untethered —the reverse image of the modern rural landscape in which everything has been kitschified? In any case, the parallels with Irvine Welsh's bitter “Choose Life” monologue in Trainspotting are obvious, so that Jerusalem in this regard becomes another expression of a more general British postmodern despair, craftily papered over, in the case of its secondary characters, by humour and hedonism. Often, however, a crack opens up and the darkness shows through —such as when the amiable Lee Piper (David Riddiford) is reminded that it doesn’t matter how far away he goes, even if he goes to Australia, he will still be himself, at which point a melancholy dead silence suddenly descended over the audience. When Gerard Horan’s Morris dancer turns up to beg Byron for some speed to get him through the ordeal of dancing all day in the Tesco car park, the moment seems to symbolise the state of mind that afflicts almost all the secondary characters: from Byron’s best mate Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), trying to make it as a DJ, to the intensely parochial chauvinist Davey (Ed Year), working in an abattoir and professing to care nothing about events outside of Wiltshire. (All the secondary characters, that is, except the out-of-it Professor played by Alan Williams, a bird-happy exponent of ‘Merrie Englande’ whose discourse serves to throw the reality into comic sharp relief.)
The play, however, does have significant problems, apart from the central issue of working out its meaning. Some aspects, thanks to the dizzying pace of social and cultural change since the play’s debut in 2009, are now seriously dated. Many other reviews have already remarked on this point, but most of the female parts are cartoonish and lacking in substance. The exceptions are Phaedra (well served by Worthington Cox’s profoundly touching performance), and Indra Ové making the absolute most of Byron’s fed-up ex, in an onslaught of remarkable, sinewy intensity and ferocity. Others have also commented on how jarring the sexist and racist language of the original has become, so that many of the jokes fail to land. What used to be defended as ‘banter’ in 2009 today makes the audience physically flinch, which has the unintended side-effect of rendering the secondary characters less sympathetic than in the original production. This may be one of the factors that made this production seem, to the critics, overall darker than the remembered premiere. It also presented this very fine cast with a frankly unreasonable challenge.
Despite these issues, this revival packed an unparalleled emotional punch—the audience frequently teetering between tears and laughter— and demonstrated why Rylance is considered the greatest stage actor of his generation, with an extraordinary physical presence and an ability to magically transform a scene’s mood in an instant, an alchemy which brings his woodland shaman to triumphant life. As I stumbled out of the Apollo in the direction of Victoria, my ears ringing with the sound of ancient giants advancing to rescue one of their own in his hour of need, I considered the central metaphor of an England in which the May Queen is missing and no one knows where the time went —a dilemma that has since become even more relevant. --Isabel Taylor