Jerusalem: the Play by Jez Butterworth

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Jerusalem: the Play by Jez Butterworth

Do we  believe that Johnny “Rooster” Byron is having sex with Phaedra, the 15-year-old girl he’s sheltering from the stepfather who has apparently been sexually abusing her? And, if we do, how come we don’t think Johnny’s abusing her, too? Or do we?

These questions go to the heart of what makes this play so interesting and disturbing—and the answer is only partly that Mark Rylance embodies Johnny as such a vivid life force that we might almost forgive him anything.

Painted Wooden Roof Boss from Rochester Cathedral, Kent (Medieval)

The tenderness of Johnny’s third-act scene with Phaedra certainly suggests a relationship. She brings down the curtain on the second act when she suddenly emerges from his trailer in the woods and calls his name. When she emerges again in Act 3 to find Johnny alone among the dilapidated furniture scattered in the yard out front, she recounts the thrill of being crowned queen of the annual fair on the previous year’s St. George’s day (April 23, England’s National Day), sadly counting down the minutes until the end of her tenure—it’s St. George’s day again, and, over at the fair, a new queen is about to be crowned. Johnny tells her she should leave, but she commands him to dance with her. He roars that he doesn’t dance, but she, in her gauzy, pale-green dress and tatty fairy wings, prevails. They dance, stiffly (he with his gimpy leg), until they embrace, he lifting her high in the air, her hair and body pouring down over him. Is it sexual? It’s hard not to think so. Yet the freedom of Phaedra’s manner, and the gravity of Johnny’s deference to her, contain not the slightest suggestion that she is a victim. What’s going on? Or is this somehow the cosmic union of two primal souls, pouring out their mutual yearning?

Phaedra opens the play and the second act, standing alone in her fairy togs on the apron of the stage, in front of a scrim painted with the medieval Cross of St. George (still the flag of England), singing. The first time, she sings the haunting hymn “Jerusalem,” an English favorite, its lyrics a poem by William Blake. She’s soon drowned out by the ear-shattering din of a party at Johnny’s trailer—and an epic party it is, as the scrim rises and we are enveloped by aural and visual shockwaves as frenetic, strobe-lit bodies hurtle around the stage.

The prevailing tone of the play, though, is elegiac. Johnny was once an Evel Knievel-like motorcycle daredevil who soared over rows of buses at long-gone St. George’s Day fairs. His trailer in the woods—a life-sized, streamlined aluminum model aptly named Waterloo, set in a thick grove of what appear to be real, leafy green trees—has been a refuge for the youth of the local town, Flintock, for 30 years. He plies them with alcohol and dope, and even when they grow up and pass into the ranks of his condemners, some of them continue to visit and buy dope from him. But now the law is closing in—Johnny’s about to be evicted, his trailer bulldozed, due to a petition signed by 1500 people in the ironically named ‘housing estate’—what we would call a housing development—that’s been built within eyesight and, obviously, earshot, of the wooded encampment.

The morning after the party, Johnny’s young disciples arrive or emerge—from the town, from the depths of a falling-apart couch, from under the trailer (two girls, one of whose clothes are smeared with what Johnny definitively declares is badger shit). Phaedra is not among them; in fact, her disappearance from her stepfather’s home is a running theme of the play. Someone suggests that werewolves might have gotten her.

Which takes us back to the wildness in the woods. The English are heirs to a complex folklore involving the land, especially the forest—think of all the magical things that happen in forests in Shakespeare’s plays. Across the countryside, relics and ruins of a pagan past abound: Johnny’s trailer in Wiltshire is not far from Stonehenge and other holy sites that date from a time of Druids and magic that Johnny channels and even the local teens seem at home with. It’s not just that Johnny tells fabulous tales, including one about a 90-foot giant who claims to have built Stonehenge. References to traditional folklore frequently come up in casual conversation; although under siege by the secular, the commercial and the small-minded, the soul of England lives in this ancient, mythologized connection to the land.

That is Johnny’s—and the play’s—saving grace. On one level, Johnny Byron looks like a type familiar to Americans from movies going back to Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Henry Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider—the romantic rebel, the eternally adolescent male, the unrepentant, uncivilized man/boy/dog. Unanchored by myth, lacking an epic dimension, this model got old a long time ago; although versions of it remain a staple on stage and screen, it’s difficult, at least for a woman, to feel much beyond impatience with it, however charmingly the rogue is portrayed. Grow up, already!

Johnny Byron, though, fully inhabits the glorious myths of England’s past. That past may be the object of nostalgia (a heavily sentimentalized yearning common to adolescents) on the one hand and commercial exploitation on the other (the local pub owner’s corporate overlords have prevailed on him to dress up as a Morris Dancer for the fair), but the rumbling we hear whenever anyone looks Johnny Byron straight in the eye is an intimation of something genuinely wild, a force that’s escaped the ever-tightening strictures of what passes for civilization.

Most Americans have at best a second-hand relationship to folklore. Our foundation myths are not about giants and spirits occupying the land we live on. In America, such stories belong to the people who got here first—the Indians, Native Americans or First People. The dominant culture’s foundation myths are about conquering the original people and taming the land they inhabited. This country is a product of the Enlightenment, not of folklore and fairy tales. Yet in our hunger for myth we’ve romanticized both the Indians and the cowboys, the latter our first Easy Riders.

If the American romantic hero is a rebel, an outsider, at odds with the culture around him, Johnny’s relationship to the local culture is more complex. He’s not really a rebel; he’s tapping into a vein of wildness that is still, however tenuously, a part of English identity. It’s not only ferocious; it is also radically innocent. For all his roistering, Johnny is clearly bewildered by the demands of modern life. The fabulous is his refuge: when his ex-lover, Dawn, arrives with their small son  to remind him of his paternal responsibilities, his response is to recount a tale of being abducted and held for a week by Nigerian traffic wardens. In more congenial times, he might have been a bard.

Johnny even seems mystified by his own outrageous nature—which, far from making him look larger than life, seems more often to render him helpless, even pathetic. It’s the young people who tell him how, when drunk, he has at various times smashed his own TV during his party, caused a “fracas” at the local pub, and peed in his pants—the last provoking a mass urination on him by the other males present, including his own disciples. Johnny’s reaction to all these stories is bewilderment, not braggadocio.

Sober, thought, his manner toward his young followers can be grave, even courtly. Tanya and Pea, the two young women who tumble out from under his trailer in the first act, have no fear of him. In fact, although the female characters in the play are less developed than the male, they are by no means reduced to the camp follower/mother figures found in the tales of American easy riders. In the play, when Tanya offers herself as a prize to Lee, the boy who’s leaving for Australia the next morning, and he hesitates, she tells him bluntly and cheerfully that “it’s a good offer,” and is about to be withdrawn. Johnny himself stands up to the adults for the reality of teenage sexuality, reminding Wesley, the publican/Morris Dancer—one of his former followers who, while banning Johnny from his pub, still stops by for dope and succor—that he, Wesley, lost his virginity at 12.

Phaedra’s stepfather, Troy, is another alumnus of Johnny’s camp. When he first comes by looking for Phaedra and menaces Johnny with an axe, Johnny disarms him by reminding him that, as a teenage regular at the camp, he couldn’t look at his own reflection in a plate of (possibly magical) liquid; it made him tremble. Unable to help himself, Troy throws down the axe and starts trembling, and Johnny goads him: Are you still horny? Stepdaughter sleeping in the room right next to you?

Immediately after Johnny and Phaedra’s last-act embrace, Troy arrives again, with his two thuggish brothers. Phaedra flees; the brothers force Johnny into the trailer, where they noisily beat him up while, outside, Troy heats up a branding iron he passes to them. When they’ve fled and Johnny emerges, bloody and half-naked, he repudiates Ginger, his chief sidekick, who’s come to tell him the police are closing in and who wants to stand by him. Alone, Johnny begins to beat the drum that, he’s told everyone, the giant gave him to sound the alarm if he ever needs help. Gradually, the morning light turns green; the trailer and Johnny’s torso gleam with emerald highlights; a rumbling is heard and the trees shiver as in a wind. The curtain descends.

The Green Man is a major figure in English folklore, the embodiment of rebirth, of spring, of the sheer vitality of nature. You can find his pagan image carved into Christian cathedrals, churches, and other buildings dating from the 11th century onwards: his face is formed by foliage, or foliage sprouts from his mouth or eyes. He’s been linked to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Celtic deities—even, of course, to Jesus. The Green Man has been a persistent theme in different media and remains a potent subject today: Peter Pan, arriving from Neverland covered in green leaves, is his avatar, as is Shakespeare’s Puck and Gawain’s Green Knight. The Green Man is probably related to the Woodwose, the Wild Man of the Woods. The Woodwose is always portrayed as hairy, and Johnny Byron’s personal foundation myth includes the assertion that he was born with all his teeth and hair on his chest.

Fairies are also creatures of the wood, spirits or magical beings, prone to nighttime mischief. Phaedra, her little wing-harness undercutting the mythical, nonetheless partakes of it. Her last-act embrace with Johnny is one for the ages. The achievement of this sprawling, too-long play, and the epic performance by Mark Rylance, is that, while recognizing that most of us might have signed that petition just to get a good night’s sleep, it nevertheless gives us all a glimpse of that Druidic age when giants and fairies shared the earth with man.

A Modern Version of the Green Man

Banksia Man by Australian artist Graham Wilson
© 2009 Graham Wilson, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License

[Thanks to Abby Robinson and Victoria Roberts for illuminating conversations.]

Directed by Ian Rickson

The actors (as their characters are mentioned): Mark Rylance (Johnny Byron), Aimeé-Ffion Edwards (Phaedra), Geraldine Hughes (Dawn), Aiden Eyrick / Mark Page (Marky, Johnny’s son), Charlotte Mills (Tanya), Molly Ranson (Pea), Jay Sullivan (Lee), Max Baker (Wesley), Barry Sloane (Troy Whitworth), Richard Short (Danny Whitworth), James Riordan (Frank Whitworth), Mackenzie Crook (Ginger), Alan David (the Professor), Danny Kirrane (Davey), Sarah Moyle (Ms. Fawcett), Harvey Robinson (Mr. Parsons)

The production: Sets and costumes by Ultz; lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin; sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph; music by Stephen Warbeck; production stage manager, Jill Cordle; production manager, Aurora Productions; general manager, STP/David Turner; British general manager, Sonia Friedman Productions. A Royal Court Theater production, presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, Stuart Thompson, Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Royal Court Theater Productions, Beverly Bartner/Alice Tulchin, Dede Harris/Rupert Gavin, Broadway Across America, Jon B. Platt, 1001 Nights/Stephanie P. McClelland, Carole L. Haber/Richard Willis and Jacki Barlia Florin/Adam Blanshay. At the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street, Manhattan.

Paul Mason | 16:47 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009

[Back in July I promised to write a blog about Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem. Here, finally, it is.]

"This, Wesley, is a historic day," says a middle aged drunken traveller, posed at the front of his caravan with various no-hopers, low-lifes, teenage runaways and misfits from semi-rural England..."For today I Rooster Byron and my band of educationally subnormal outcasts shall swoop and raze your poxy village to dust. In a thousand years Englanders will awake this day and bow their heads and wonder at the genius, guts and guile of the Flintock Rebellion..."

It's just one glorious speech out of many from Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, staged at the Royal Court Theatre this summer with Mark Rylance in the role of Johnny "Rooster" Byron, and set to be revived early in 2010.

Butterworth's play achieves two things: in Rooster he has created one of the most compelling, complex and iconic characters in modern British theatre; at the same time he has managed to capture an era in British political and social life at the very moment of its ending.

Jerusalem was five years in the writing and depicts the life of a poor-ish, prospectless, rave-addicted, casual drug using, unskilled social group that is absolutely central to the society we live in, but which the media barely notices exists. It captures their reality better than any soap opera and their dreams better than any tawdry Saturday night talent show.

Life for such people is about to get very tough. Indeed, the economic data tells us that the UK's "flexible labour market" has already been the key to avoiding mass unemployment. The real life Daveys, Lees and Tanyas have gone on short time, taken pay cuts, slept on floors at their mates' houses, worked for no wages (in what our parents' generation used to call overtime).

They have scrabbled around the bargain shelves of major supermarkets, shopped in the pound shops, borrowed from doorstep lenders and bunged their electrical goods into Britain's booming pawnbroking sector. As we go into 2010, they will now be faced with an economic "recovery" in which public services are cut, benefits are very likely frozen or slashed, credit is in short supply and all political parties implore them to "help themselves" and become "social entrepreneurs".

The sociology of Jerusalem is interesting: Rooster is a drug-dealer and fairground daredevil rider, a kind of anti-social entrepreneur. In real life he would be drawing some kind of benefit. Of the three young male foils to Rooster, Lee is "a pisshead and a wizzhead" about to emigrate to Australia; Ginger is an unemployed plasterer with delusions of being a DJ; Davey is a slaughterman. The West End theatre reviewers tended to describe this demographic as a "bucolic underclass", "wastrels", "waifs and strays".

But the power of the play lies in the fact that Rooster's band of outcasts are not at all marginal to real life in Britain. They are only marginal to the "real life" portrayed on soap operas and the slick, unreal drama series that British TV specialises in making - and of course to the pop tribute shows and star vehicles that clutter the West End.

Jerusalem then, is real. The plasterer, the DJ, the weekend drug dealer, the ex-squaddie looking to work abroad, the bored slaughterman - are mainstream figures in the real English workforce and down the real English pub: two million ecstasy tablets are taken in Britain every week; one in eight young people are not in work, education or training; 15% of all households claim in-work benefits.

Also real is the effing and blinding which seems to have uniformly discomforted the mainstream theatre critics: the swear wordcount in Jerusalem is acutally low compared to reality, and the swearing is generally genial, compared to reality where it is often aggressive, racist and violent. This, then, is the real English spoken by something close to the majority of real people: it's an indictment of the state of theatre (also, while I am at it, English literature, which has recently become dominated by surreal narratives told in a kind of quasi-poetry) that the language of Jerusalem is seems so challenging to theatregoers and critics alike. For this alone Jerusalem will go down as one of the great plays of the decade.

But Jerusalem's greatness is that it is also hyper-real. In Rooster Byron the playwright has created a character who both embodies, understands and rebels against everything that is wrong with this real England. (I am deliberately not writing here about Mark Rylance's superb rendition of Byron, because I think the play is even bigger than the performance).

A relentless fantasist and purveyor of tall stories to his mates, Rooster is also the protector of runaway kids abused by their parents, a serial rebel against the planning department of Kennet and Avon council, the local bogeyman whose anti-social behaviour can fill the local church hall with outraged Rotarians ("You get a cup of tea. Flapjack. Then they all sit down on foldy chairs and go beserk."). He is also a force of nature: Falstaff and Henry V in the same body, the original Green Man of pagan folklore whose face vomiting vegetation can be found on the corbels of early medieval churches all over England.

And he embodies magic. At the centre of the play, which is dark in ways impossible to discuss without revealing the plot, is the ambiguity between Rooster's tall tale telling (I will call it that because this is a BBC blog but you know the word I am thinking of) and the tantalising question of whether or not he really has magical powers. Is the 90ft tall giant who once gave Rooster an earring in the shape of a golden drum on Salisbury Plain, and who will one day be Rooster's own personal close protection guy in showdown with Kennet and Avon Council, real or imaginary?

By placing this unreal, magical, flawed, wounded, complex character onstage amid an unflinching portrayal of real life in low-skill, low-pay, low-horizon England ("When I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop," says one character) Butterworth asks layer upon layer of questions about the society we live in.

And the biggest one is this: what would happen if this happy go lucky world of cheap booze, semi-employment, casual sex, Saturday night raves etc were one day disrupted by something serious. What if the music stopped, the benefit office closed its doors and the caravan got dragged away by the council.

The coming fiscal crunch has made this a relevant question. Because Butterworth's characters are captured at the end of an era of debt-fuelled consumption, cheap credit and amoralistic drift. When we sit in London and say: the Greeks' lifestyle can't go on; or Latvia is living above its means; or Dubai was a dream built on sand, Butterworth's play shows us there are equally telling observations to be made about British society in the era of Shopacheck and whizz at £3 a tab.

And what still stuns me is how new and raw and original and terrifying life in semi-rural working class Britain seems when viewed through the experience of Rooster and his mates. And the very low chances of escaping it.

As whizzhead Lee explains to slaughterman Davey:

"Ever since I've known you, come Tuesday you ain't never got a pound for a saveloy. You're broke...You are a sad, fat povvo what thinks he's Alan Sugar. You're going to live your whole life with the same ****ing people, going to the same s*** pubs, kill two million cows and die a sad fat povvo."

Davey, capturing the spirit that has sustained the downtrodden English bloke from Agincourt to Helmand replies:

"Sounds unimproveable".

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