Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Jerusalem – Apollo Theatre

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


William Blake – Tate Britain

 

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

Genius or lunatic, William Blake was clearly a troubled man. You only need to look at his collection of despairing figures, prostrate bodies and muscular beasts painted in vivid reds and mournful blues clutching mercilessly at their prey to know that this was an artist channeling his demons, trying to make sense of the visions he experienced in a tumultuous period of British history. But Blake is so much more than that; poet, printmaker and artistic visionary, Tate Britain charts the evolution of his work in their new exhibition William Blake which places his output in its proper personal, social and political context, revealing a man born into respectability struggling to find an audience for his increasingly challenging work, and only through the patronage of a few key friends is William Blake remembered at all.

Opening to coincide with The Last Night of the Proms in which the rousingly nationalistic anthem Jerusalem is annually performed using Blake’s lyrics, the exhibition is a chronological catalogue of the numerous strands of Blake’s personal and professional life, as well as the many innovative techniques and approaches he applied to his art. There is an additional sense of the man as a commercial printer and engraver simultaneously producing work in a variety of forms and styles throughout his lifetime. We saw in Tate Britain’s equally revealing van Gogh show earlier this year that artists are rarely able to focus on one avenue and must respond to commissions or undertake other forms of work to support their lifestyles. Blake was the same and, as this exhibition strongly argues, it is at this intersection of the imaginative and commercial forces that resided within Blake which caused him so much trouble.

Blake was a devoted Londoner, born in Soho and rarely moving more than a few streets in either direction apart from a few years in Sussex.  He was born into a trading family who encouraged his interest in becoming an artist and supported his apprenticeship as an engraver, a pragmatic approach to fostering an outcome to his creativity that he could sell. The first suite of rooms are dedicated to Blake’s time at the Royal Academy and the classical forms he was encouraged to replicate.  As Constable would find just a few years later, the emphasis was on emulating the past, seeking to mirror the anatomical perfection of renaissance artists as well as copying from sculpture in lieu of life drawing of which Blake was not a fan.

These heavily muscled sketches can be seen again and again in his later work and Blake’s eye for bulging physical form seen through the sheerest of gowns and coverings is visible well into his later, more experimental work. It was also during his Royal Academy training that Blake develop the gesticulating figures with almost unreadable expression that also feature in his more mystical pieces later in the exhibition, including the ink and watercolour figure of ‘Moses Receiving the Law’ created in the 1780s. Referencing earlier artists that Blake admired, this white and grey depiction of the 10 Commandments is striking in its simplicity, managing to simultaneously evoke a sense of peace and biblical formality as Moses’s long beard flows into his loose gown, arms uplifted to the clouds holding the reverential word of God, his face a picture of a solemnity.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake c.1785Blake’s early work drew on these Old Testament stories presenting in paler form the hint of the fire and brimestone God he would later reveal in the coloured work he produced closer to the turn of the century. But seeing these early pieces side-by-side in the first section, you see  the consistency with which Blake created the idea of a brutal God. ‘Job, his Wife and Friends’ from 1785 is full of fear, the bearded horrified face of Job referencing the stone gargoyles of medieval churches – an image Blake returns to again and again in his work. This early piece is filled with people hunched in pleading supplication, fear or awe of some almighty force, awaiting the terrors about to befall them. The theme recurs in Blake’s three-picture representation of the Joseph story, his brothers come to plead for food, fearfully and sorrowfully gathering at the feet of the sibling they fail to recognise.

Contrast the motif of unhappiness with the lightness of spirit revealed in one of Blake’s most famous early works depicting much-loved characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing [c.1786], which depicts the wistful happiness of a party, and with Shakespeare drawings popular at the time, it suggests Blake made some attempts to create more salable pieces. Yet it’s perhaps not all it seems, note also the decision to include four fairies in a ring, an image that links directly to Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music Of Time dated about 150 years earlier which depicts the seasons and the circularity of human life, permanently linking the fruitfulness of summer with death and decay to come – a theme that troubled Blake increasingly as his own work matured.

The second group of rooms showcases Blake’s work as an engraver from the late 1780s, considering both the skills he developed to sustain a healthy trade and his contribution to developments in the industry, not all of them entirely welcome. Even early in his career as an artist the exhibition makes clear that Blake’s attempts to subvert expectation was a source of considerable frustration, unable to meet the commercial expectations of the market or to find a general acceptance of his work. This darkening of the mood is a key theme in Blake’s development and seemingly the less his work was appreciated and recognised the further his imagination went.

America A Prophecy Plate 10, William BlakeThroughout his career Blake wrote and illustrated his own books but not all of these were published. Prints from these various editions are on display across the exhibition and the curators thoughtfully introduce an interesting meta-discussion about the different experience of viewing these as works of art in glass frames rather than reading them as interlinking sections of a single volume as they were originally intended to be seen. Among his most famous pieces are excerpts from Songs of Innocence and Experience, still a classroom favourite, with elaborate margin decoration that links to the religious medieval manuscripts that Blake emulates, alongside America, a Prophecy. Some of these pages are very small so expect queues as you make your way round these sections but the introduction of colour is striking and Blake uses mauve and blue to create shadow, while a brighter red suggests patches of light as the familiar figure of a man in white robes clings to the rocks, arms as ever outstretched in sacrificial repose.

You see clearly the development of Blake’s more dramatic style in the creation of these works with ‘Los and Orc’ a notable turning point in the 1790s where Blake’s mythical creations and darker visions start to invade and consume his work more completely. ‘Lucifer and the Pope in Hell’ from 1794-6 is a dastardly vision of scary gargoyles and hell’s terrifying power as a reluctant clergymen is led unwillingly to the burning pit by a scaled devil – Blake’s view of the Catholic hierarchy clearly visible! These images from the Book of Designs and the Book of Urizen are filled with terrible visions of fire, pain, decay and peopled by alarming characters whose eyes bulge with fear. It’s then only a short imaginative leap, and a brief stroll into the next room, to understand how these tortured creatures became the more elaborate depictions of devils and dragons in Blake’s extraordinary work commissioned by Thomas Butts.

TThe Number of the Beast is 666, William Blake he third section of the exhibition looks at the influence of patronage on Blake’s freedom to create art of extraordinary power and darkness, and while some of his pieces retain their lighter religious symbolism or evoke the simple country aesthetic of English rural life, it is works such as ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,’ ‘The Number of the Beast is 666’ and ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ which Blake was creating around the same time which provide the most fascinating insight into the conflicting division within his style and presumably his soul at this time. While ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is notably absent from the show, Blake’s disturbing depiction of the many-headed devil with star-patterned wings standing imposingly like Colossus over the oceanic gargoyles is fascinating. Likewise the ‘Number of the Beast is 666’ is an astoundingly nightmarish creation, that classical muscularity of body distorted and rippled as an imposing figure stands over another equally deformed being. Also in this room a chance to see the frightening and improbably muscled figures in Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in ‘Route of the Rebel Angels’ are given a near human form as the upside down bodies clutch their heads in agony – it makes for a sharp contrast with the wispy simplicity of Shakespeare’s dancing fairies only a couple of rooms and 20 years before.

From here the show moves to Blake’s most famous larger prints in which he employed another new monotyping technique using ink pressing and watercolour to create the famous image of Newton bent over his mathematical workings – turned into a large-scale statue at the British Library – the exquisite purple-blue shading of the rocks echoing the prints in America, a Prophecy, while nodding to the spread of Enlightenment ideals that would soon banish creationist notions from scientific discourse. Here also is the brutal image of Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all-fours, the flesh of his thighs slowly morphing into the haunches of a beast as that familiarly bearded face that haunts so many Blake pieces stares out in desperation. ‘The House of Death‘ in the same room uses less vivid colours than these other works but shows Blake experimenting with approaches to better convey his subject matter, lines from Milton foreshadowing the painful destruction of mankind with gaunt figures printed largely in ghostly grey and white.

The exhibition concludes with a small recreation of Blake’s disastrous and poorly attended 1809 exhibition at his Soho home which plunged him into depression for many years, angered by the lack of acclaim for his work and the refusal of art’s governing bodies including the Royal Academy to exhibit his work appropriately. And through the curation of this engaging exhibition the viewer has felt the inevitability of this outcome, that the increasingly imaginative and disturbing elements of Blake’s work came to dominate his artistic expression in a world still used to the safety of Gainsborough and the compliant portrait painters Blake so detested. There is a sense as you wander through these rooms of a mind freeing itself of all restraint, and of a fantasy life, like the Red Dragon, imposing itself on Blake’s commercial output as well, leading to a final rupture that left the artist in exile for some years.

But the Tate wants to send you home with hope and the final section which contains the illustrated text of Jerusalem is about rediscovery and the late recognition Blake received thorough partnerships with younger artists discovering his work afresh – and in 1818 it should be noted after the revolutionary fervor of the continent had died down with the final defeat of Napoleon – leading to a reappraisal of the value of Blake’s work beyond the shock and fear it once induced. So genius or lunatic? Well almost certainly both, but as this comprehensive exhibition so clearly argues there was always a duality in Blake’s artistic contribution, balancing the commercial with the personal, the two constantly overlapping as he strove for recognition. Blake was perhaps not a person it would have been easy to know but he is certainly not an artist you can ignore, and while we may never fully know if the visions he claimed to see were a sign of madness, this guided tour through the brilliant recesses of his imagination with all its classical symbolism, medieval symmetry and eventual descent into hellish vistas will haunt you for the rest of the week.

William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2 February. Tickets are £18 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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