When it first premiered in 2009 at the Royal Court, Jerusalem was hailed as the greatest British play of the twenty-first century. As Jez Butterworth’s production returns to the West End, with original cast members Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook, it is interesting to reflect on how well-anointed modern classics fare more than a decade after they were originally feted. Britain has changed since 2009 and many would say not for the better. How well does Butterworth’s work still reflects notions of British identity, of the urban/rural divide, of poverty, belonging and coming-of-age rites? While the very notion of a single play being the ‘greatest’ of a whole century is fairly reductive – and there are countless works in the intervening years that deserve similar accolades – there is much in Jerusalem‘s understanding of the underlying truths of pastoral England, the contention of the small-scale and the universal as well as a desire to find pockets of escape, places or people that remain steadfastly and reassuringly the same at points of relentless and irreversible change that make Jerusalem as pertinent as it ever was.
Butterworth’s play is rooted in the folk lore and traditions of pastoral England, and is almost Shakespearean in its use of woodlands as places of nocturnal mischief and refuge. Around the central character of Johnny “Rooster” Byron – the Oberon of his merry band – he gathers a flock of pixies who dance to his tune. Opening after a wild night at Rooster’s stationary caravan (importantly on that site since 1982), the devotees come and go throughout the next 24-hours, always returning to this spot and the man who has achieved a God-like status among them, carousing while listening to the wisdom and tall tales of their master of ceremonies. As well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Butterworth’s other key reference point here is J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys (and Girls), generations of whom come to Rooster’s woodland pleasure garden, allowing them to defer their real lives and problems as well as the pressure to grow up for a night or even a summer.
Around this drug-fuelled idyll without rules or judgement, Butterworth creates a sense of ending, of time slipping away for two characters certainly, as well as the beautiful strip of untouched England. Rooster is served with an eviction notice at the very start of the play, a piece of paper he affects to ignore but quietly acknowledges that this time the local Council mean business. It gives him just 24-hours to vacate, a ticking clock that the play tries to conceal in its languorous (but very pointed) storytelling that adds a last days of Rome tragedy that sits beneath the surface of the scenario.
Equally, young reveller Lee is departing for Australia, provoking wider reflection among the partygoers on their determinedly local perspective on the wider world along with the fear and suspicion of places beyond their county. But Lee’s imminent flight, also within the same 24-hour period, means this merry band will soon be dispersed forever, this last night likely to be the final time they too will ever be together in this way before their adult lives and responsibilities claim them. Even if the frightened Lee returns, he won’t be quite the same person that he is in this unique moment. While the wider cast know of Lee’s departure but not the scale of the threat against Rooster’s occupation of this land (at least this is not something they consciously acknowledge), that ending hangs heavy in the air.
The context for this finality is the encroaching urban landscape, the recent completion of a new estate that here ambiguously represents both greater opportunity and civilisation, bringing characters like Pea into the area, while also presenting a fundamental threat to the landscape and traditional ways of life symbolised by Rooster’s caravan. His camp is labelled an eyesore, his presence a danger to local life and his personality out of sync with contemporary morality, but Butterworth implies that the removal of Rooster is not to preserve the beauty of the location and improve the view for residents, but to provide more land on which to build, that the mixed fortunes of the estate will swallow up this patch of hallowed ground, losing its ancient forest and mystical connections forever.
This links also to the changing nature of the fair which the characters are attending off-stage, an annual celebration of local life that has a mystic pull on the locals with its selection of the May Queen (another ending as the outgoing monarch must crown her successor). Yet, the fair has also decreased in value over many years the youngsters complain that its once broad appeal has been sanitised and reduced by regulation and policy. In this, Jerusalem is in the Romantic tradition, a warning about the consequences of industrialisation that beds the play in a 250-year poetic and cultural and poetic approach that reinforces the universality of its themes.
But Butterworth is not wholly swept away by his subject, taking some time to reflect on the underbelly of rural life and the mass of contradictions that Rooster and his lifestyle represent. This is a place where hate festers, opportunity it limited and compassion has very little traction. The disappearance of a 15-year-old girl casts a dark shadow, another piece of the play that Butterworth tries to bury in light conversation but a subject that hauntingly returns in each scene, culminating in acts of savage violence that speak to simmering tensions in this community fuelled by bigotry and isolationism. A lighter example comes in Act 2 when Davey complains about the wider focus of the local TV news station, refusing sympathies for old ladies beaten-up in Wales and only concerned with the immediate neighbourhood. This extends to his equally scathing view of Lee’s travel plans, wondering what the point of other countries is and dismissive of the need for any experience or existence beyond his enclosed definition of locality. Butterworth uses this humorous example to question the insularity of the characters and the negative traits it reinforces, creating cycles of behaviour that are perhaps dangerously unchanging. This resistance to some personal development sits against the externally-imposed change creating a tension in the action that is deliberately never resolved, leaving the audience to determine whether Davey or Lee is really on the right track.
Much of the play’s darkness also comes from the ambiguous character of Rooster whose folk hero status and role as a comedic protagonist are repeatedly undercut by his behaviour and choices. Almost entirely amoral in many ways, or at least unwilling to comply with social and political rules he had no input into making, Rooster is a drug-dealer, an alcoholic, troublemaker and lothario who lies continually while surrounding himself only with people too young to question him. He has fathered a child by a local woman who he has no interest in and very little contact with, claims to have had adulterous liaisons with several of the town’s wives and, in one of the play’s most troubling scenes, comes dangerously close to crossing the line with an underage girl, a sequence that looks a little different with the passing years and one that casts the subsequent retribution in a slightly different light. In this contemporary restaging, Rooster is by no means a benign figure or the party master he sets himself up to be. Described as a Pied Piper, the less savoury connotations of that make for an interesting clash with the empathy the play also reaches for.
Butterworth simultaneously puts Rooster in an interesting position among the other characters, a figure that everyone needs but, ultimately, no one wants. Attention is momentarily drawn to the disrespect with which the younger characters actually hold him, happy to take his drugs and hospitality but never giving Rooster a second thought once the party is over. At times of true need, Rooster is left to face his fate alone, the gatherers long since departed for their own problems, leaving him without anyone to rely on. Even friend Ginger flees in fear. There is a tragedy in this that Butterworth, and Rylance though his performance, make very tangible. None of this entirely absolves him of his poor behaviour and character weaknesses but it adds depth to the play with Butterworth drawing on a variety of theatrical tragedy reference points including the sadness of the clown out of the spotlight and even the feeling of the dying monarch or leader in Shakespeare, his followers gravitating to a successor. It coalesces as an individuality in the play in which all characters are ultimately self-serving, retaining neither friendship or any true loyalty beyond the immediate moment, something which Rooster himself is as guilty as anyone else.
Structurally, like The Ferryman much later, Jerusalem is built around a sense of seemingly disconnected and disparate conversations that ebb and flow, both reflecting and creating the action. And it is through this concept of oral tradition , of communities telling stories, legends and myths about earlier generations and themselves that identity formation occurs and is reinforced within the play. The passing of information is partially the job of Rooster who establishes himself as a knowledge provider, a man who has seen and experienced it all, however fantastical some of those self-aggrandising tales appear to be. And while there is no complexity in the plot as such, more a capturing of 24-hours through its moods, tones and shifts in activity, these somehow successfully encapsulate a way of life in this part of England as the unfolding of these stories, the way they hang together and the manner in which they are told become collectively revelatory and insightful.
What emerges speaks to another of the play’s deliberate central tensions – the role of Rooster as both interloper on the land and an essential part of a local life and experience expressed through a scene in which he responds to names on a petition against him, revealing his knowledge and encounters with every person over decades of living close by – a place he is also genetically linked to through his son. Using this loose conversational technique, Butterworth explores the nature of belonging and the legal, political, social and geographical meanings of identity.
Rylance’s performance as Rooster is full of verve, moving away from the slightly more mannered Shakespearean performances of recent years to remind the West End what a powerful actor he can be. Entirely immersed in the character, the passing of more than a decade hasn’t dimmed his performance and the creation of this complex, multidimensional character, every comic contradiction of which is lived large on stage. Managing to be captivating and repellent at the same time, Rylance’s Rooster is king of all he surveys and entirely deluded, half believing the nonsense anecdotes he tells while consciously glorying in his reputation for excess and disruption. He is aggressive and kind, merciless and vulnerable, devil and angel. All of this Rylance conveys as part of Rooster’s allure, never forgiving him for what he is but finding that kernel of loneliness, fear and insecurity that he buries with booze, drugs and the vigorous energy of his young companions.
Crook leads his band of followers as the more worldly Ginger, long-term associate for whom the party never ended. Chief Lost Boy, Ginger is, however, more grounded, less in thrall to his friend and ultimately no more willing to put himself in danger for Rooster’s sake. Jack Riddiford is particularly excellent as Lee, nervous about facing the real world but knowing deep down that he must if he is ever going to escape the locals and himself while Charlotte O’Leary, Kemi Awoderu and Ed Kear complete the ensemble of desperately foolish but oblivious young revellers having the springtime of their lives. Barry Sloane makes a couple of tone-changing appearances as Troy, the stepfather looking for the missing girl whose own history with Rooster brings the threat and the reality of violence to his door.
Back at the Apollo where it transferred in 2010, Ian Rickson’s production uses real grass and trees, giving an immersive experience to the front few rows who can inhale the odour of country freshness while dodging sprays of beer in Rooster’s more exuberant moments. Does it stand up 13-years on, well yes it does because Butterworth recognised that some things just don’t change and the picture he paints of receding opportunity, polarisation and the breakdown of identity in the name of progress are perhaps more true now than they were in 2009. Now this modern classic has certainly earned that place on the list of the 21st-century’s greatest plays.
Jerusalem is at the Apollo Theatre until 7 August with tickets from £40 although day seats are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog