Theatre Communications Group, 2011
96 pp., 14.95
England's Green & Pleasant Land
I first heard the buzz hovering around the playwright Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem shortly after its 2009 opening at London's Royal Court Theatre. The play, which takes its title from William Blake's visionary verses and Hubert Parry's well-known World War I hymn made from them—
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant land.
—kept accumulating rapturous reviews, from its debut to its eventual move to the West End early in 2010.
Jerusalem would prove to be the latest example of a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in a generation of theatergoing—a singularly memorable combination of writing, directing, and acting. Moving from page to stage, a playwright's work, no matter how good it is, becomes caught up in the director's vision and in the impressions an actor makes. Furthermore, the writing must submit in the circumstance of performance to the sublime limitation that most defines theater as a human art form: it is utterly ephemeral. No matter how much a performer or ensemble puts its stamp on a play, eventually that production closes, and the play must await another group of humans to embody the text and give life again to the words. Of course that life will resemble the previous existence very little, if at all. For all of these reasons, I felt privileged to have attended the New York production of Jerusalem in the spring of 2011, which retained key elements (original director, many actors) of its earlier UK manifestations.
Critics singled out Mark Rylance especially for his performance as the main character, Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a hard-drinking, speed-taking, former motorbike daredevil who for two decades has lived in a trash-laden Airstream trailer in the woods outside of Flintock, in southern England. Rooster spends his time telling stories and selling drugs to the (fictional) village's bored, party-happy youth, who have nothing better to do and nowhere better to go.
Not your proverbial cup of tea, you say? Reasonable enough to think so, except that Rylance in playing this woodland squatter seemed to achieve a theatrical miracle: he did not soften in the least the unpleasant, even menacing aspects of Rooster's character, and yet in his strangely principled, fearless truth-telling and surprising moments of magnanimity, Rylance's Rooster nevertheless stood as an improbably likeable hero. Audiences couldn't turn away from him, even in his excesses and outrages. He left them smiling, or marveling really, the way a tornado may make you marvel.
Some have seen Rooster as a lord of Misrule such as Shakespeare's Falstaff; others as a child manipulator such as the Pied Piper or Fagin in Oliver Twist; others still as a type of the foliate-headed Green Man seen carved in medieval churches, anciently connected with vegetative deities and wiccan horned gods, and a common English pub or inn name (Keats' favorite London pub was The Green Man). In yet another guise, Rooster is a figure of English patriotic legend gone to seed, a debauched descendant of King Arthur or Robin Hood.
(Even connections with Jesus have been made, and indeed, Blake's lines from his prophetic poem Milton bring to visionary life a legend about Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea visiting Glastonbury, not so far from the Wiltshire where the play is set. Still, for this reader and viewer, it's a stretch.)
Often, characters that are grist for literary critics fatally compromise their dramatic potential because they are too busy pointing outward; they stand for something else, something too quickly determined, rather than existing and doing, bodily and in the moment, onstage. Rylance, though, managed to take Rooster and animate him, making him fierce, giving him depth. Typical responses? Volcanic, galvanic, titanic. Choose your effusion. In the New York production, his performance remained worthy of these words.
But make no mistake, there is more to Jerusalem than Rylance, although the role and the play may forever be associated with its originating onstage force. By focusing on the muscular, raving bravado of Rooster, this id-master and alpha-dog, Butterworth has crafted a play with big themes: universal coming-of-age struggles and the responsibilities of adulthood; tendencies in a community toward social hypocrisy, secrecy, scapegoating, and betrayal; the higher virtues that can exist even among society's low-lifes, such as fellowship and even a sacrificial ethic; English independence and the decline of national identity (provoking anger mixed with deep strains of nostalgia), especially evident in a profound sense of social malaise; and, most theatrically thrilling, the ancient, mythic powers of place that a defiant one may still dare to call upon when resisting the imperious claims of an increasingly homogenous modern culture.
In After the War (1994), the novelist and critic D. J. Taylor characterized postwar British fiction as obsessed with decline. Poets are in on it, too, as in Adrian Mitchell's "Remember Suez?": "But I saw the Thames like a grubby old belt / and England's trousers falling down." Such pathetic images mock Blake's sacralizing tendencies, as here again in Liberty: "The fields from Islington to Marylebone, / To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood, / Were builded o'er with pillars of gold; / And here, Jerusalem's pillars stood." In Butterworth's play, the old customs are celebrated even as their inevitable obsolescence is acknowledged. But then again, writers were doing that in the English Renaissance, too. More incisively, the play both celebrates the local and reveals the smallness and moral ugliness that the local often permits.
Butterworth, born in London and currently living on a farm in Somerset, announces his theme with the play's loaded title. Blake's lines have become for the English a Song of the Nation. In a London bookstore recently, I noticed one travel book allusively called And Did Those Feet? and beside it, a book on English patriotism—I turned right to an entry on the "Jerusalem" hymn. It is just the tune you would expect the London Philharmonic to play as a thrilling conclusion to The Proms at Royal Albert Hall. As for the play itself, the audience first sees for a stage curtain a huge white flag with red cross—the symbol of St George, images of which can be purchased at many an English Heritage site. (My favorite product of this sort may be the child's make-believe medieval tunic, turning your little one into a crusading Coeur-de-Lion.) He is, after all, England's national saint: "God for Harry, England, and St George!" cries Shakespeare's martial king in Henry V.
The play's action takes place on April 23, St George's Day—and, not incidentally, Shakespeare's birthday, too. In recent years Shakespeare's critical reputation has grown not as the working actor-playwright of London but rather as the great writer of "Deep England," who never relinquished residence in his hometown village of Stratford—a Midlands man, a Warwickshire homeowner and commuter. Perhaps the most famous lines about England are Shakespeare's, from John of Gaunt's evocation in Richard II of "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England," referred to ubiquitously on travel agents' walls and in headlines for Jerusalem reviews. (During his state visit in 2010, President Obama was quoting these words when he mistakenly kept speaking as the orchestra played "God Save the Queen.") Thus the play plants its own dramatic banner in a deeply English time and place, and with emphatic English visuals and allusions.
Butterworth was not exactly an unknown writer before Jerusalem. A handful of his plays had been prominently staged and critically lauded in London, and he received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007. Yet this new play was clearly a breakout achievement. A bit more in the limelight now, Butterworth remains a fascinating figure, in part because he writes film scripts as well as plays. He's currently at work on London Calling, a film about the seminal English band The Clash, and he wrote the espionage thriller Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Two earlier films, Birthday Girl and The Last Legion, are stunningly similar in their mediocrity despite representing two very different genres—romantic crime intrigue and historical drama—and wasting the star power of Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, respectively. Suffice it to say that nothing in Butterworth's work as a scriptwriter could prepare you for the mammoth literary and dramatic force of Jerusalem.
Mark Rylance, who brought Butterworth's play unforgettably to life, was born in County Kent (a region in Southeast England not unlike Wiltshire) and raised in the United States. Rylance will be best known to some as the inaugural artistic director at The Globe Theatre. Young and innovative during that tenure, he is by anyone's account a superb Shakespearean, yet I had previously seen him in or knew him for more refined performances—a wispy Richard II at The Globe; Olivia in an all-male production of Twelfth Night. These memories made it impossible for me to imagine him playing the likes of Jerusalem's anarchic anti-hero.
Then, fortunately, the play opened on Broadway in May 2011, and the strong production from London was not much messed with: Ian Rickson continued as director, and Rylance and many others from the first cast reprised their roles. Immoderate praise among critics has reemerged too, signaling the success of the play's transfer. Rylance's crowning approbation came when he won a Tony Award for his performance as Rooster. He had earned his first Tony a few years ago for his role in Boeing-Boeing, and in 2011 he was competing with himself after starring previously in La Bête; it was the first time one person had received two "leading actor" nominations in the same year.
Did the play deserve its towering praise? Could Rylance really transform himself for this role in the ways that ecstatic critics described? When I finally saw Jerusalem shortly after its New York opening, the answers were clear: yes and yes.
Before the action of the play began, the audience was invited to contemplate a contemporary English landscape: a wood pile, gray mini-van car seat, smashed TV, fire pit, fridge, thermos, cigarette packs, fast-food wrappers, and tractor tire, arrayed in front of a large St George flag. The stage goes dark, and there appears Phaedra, whom we soon learn was last year's queen of the Flintock Fair. She is now missing. A young teenager in fairy wings, she hauntingly sings the "Jerusalem" hymn—and then suddenly the curtain lifts and the scene crashes into a wild, bass-throbbing, strobe-lit party, followed by a sudden cut again to the aftermath, the next morning. An Airstream trailer sits upstage, approximating a shepherd's hut or gypsy caravan. Instead of its owner, we first notice a man and woman in business suits, wearing fluorescent vests, as if they're approaching a biohazard scene. At 9 am sharp, they post an eviction notice on the trailer door. They represent the town council: Rooster must go. Growling is heard within; Rooster doesn't own a pet.
The municipal officials depart, a little shaken, and then Rylance as Rooster emerges, barging onstage in work boots, green painter pants, a World War II aviation cap, tattooed, visibly limping but no less fiercely cursing his visitors and shouting fantasies. He can't oblige them, he says in the text, because he is holidaying with Kate Moss. To show just what he thinks of his visitors, he plays an air horn into a bullhorn, and lets the noise reverberate. It is a fitting emblem for this hyperbolic character. Rooster next goes through his intense regimen (probably a daily one) of shaking off his hangover, which includes doing a headstand into a trough of water, and preparing a "breakfast drink" consisting of a raw egg, liquor, and speed. He storms across the stage, winging a bottle here, tossing a can there. Almost immediately, then, the audience enters Rooster's madcap orbit; we may judge him, or find him ridiculous, but mainly we become entranced satellites.
Soon we meet Rooster's young circle. His best mate, Ginger, was played in the New York production by Mackenzie Crook, best known to American audiences from the BBC version of The Office and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Wearing camo-capris, a hoodie, and bright green sneakers, Ginger has some university connections, and his talk of funding cuts resonates with England's current austerity program and the student protests it has generated. Yet he also dreams of being a DJ, and doesn't mind associations with a social outcast such as Rooster. Dramatizing a similar tension is Lee, played by John Gallagher, Jr., lately in Broadway successes such as American Idiot and Spring Awakening. An easy-going friend scheduled to leave behind this confining Flintock life, Lee plans to set out for Australia. He may, but he's allowed glimpses later in the play of the preciousness of any native land. There he becomes a "son of this vale, a native of this soil," and what better thing can someone say about her or his homeland than, "I have been very happy here"? Yet other visions of this place check such sentimentality. "Mother, what is this dark place?" one character playacts. " 'Tis England, my boy."
Then there is the Professor, seemingly senile but also in mourning, we're led to believe. He wears a light suit suggesting England's former colonial days, and is the character most in touch with England's mythic traditions. Others in the circle include Davey, and Tonya and Pea, young teenagers who wake up after the previous night's party and crawl out of the woodwork. Danny Kirrane played Davey, and he and other actors here have also appeared in the BBC series Skins, remade into a notorious MTV show. Its fast youth culture, and the rough impoverishment of William H. Macy's television hit Shameless, another UK import, both helpfully illuminate Rooster and his ragged, reckless entourage of mainly minors.
Davey is thematically interesting in his opposition to soon-to-journey Lee. Working at a shambles, Davey seems like a man-boy in his brown cut-off shorts. He is content to earn his weekly pay and party hard, or "shag on," when not working. He is the play's most flamboyant defender of the local, and the complexities of local values. His ears pop when he leaves Flintock, he says, and in one memorable monologue, he criticizes the BBC for its "Points West" coverage growing too broad. He first felt pity when he heard of a woman being abused by a gang, he says, but then realized it happened in Wales! If it's not someone from his own county, who cares?
We learn that the woods where Rooster squats (he's been there so long, they're now called "Rooster's Woods") will soon be developed into a subdivision called the New Estate. To Butter-worth's credit, he has one of Rooster's own friends spell out clearly how deeply unappealing it would be to have him living in a trailer beside these new properties. Who wants to work hard to buy such a home, and yet live next to an ogre who traffics in spliffs and whizz? After all, he's already been banned from every pub in the village.
And yet, Rooster commands respect. We hear how he has appeared in town council meetings, where they condemn him. He's disguised in a burqa, and sounds like a dark prophet when saying matter-of-factly that the fresh paint in The New Estate homes will eventually peel. "I got eyes everywhere," he says, and later during a type of beggars' banquet he says he's lived in Flintock longer than anyone, claiming descent from the land's primeval giants. So silly, yet said with great conviction, and destined to reappear in different dramatic form.
His young followers tell stories about his past glories—the time, for instance, when he jumped 13 doubledecker buses at nearby Stonehenge. This memory (which earned big laughs from the New York audience) symbolizes the desirable energy, the crazy heroism, that Rooster brought to past May fairs, even a primal violence at his own physical expense. By contrast, the descriptions of this year's fair, taking place on this very day, are comically sharp: contests now include "throw a sponge at the lady vicar," and the festivity is associated with corporate sponsorships: Men in Black floats and Lord of the Rings booths. The group mocks Remains of the Day. Olde England has become a glossy kiddie park.
When the pub owner Wesley appears on the scene, dressed foolishly and half-heartedly as a morris dancer, we see old traditions being commodified, turned into a sight gag in Wesley's now corporately owned pub. Rooster's defiance looks admirable by comparison, particularly when we see that Wesley's appearance of grown-up orderliness masks some of the same habits practiced openly in Rooster's circle. Mainly, though, Wesley, of the same generation as Rooster, serves as a conduit for both men's nostalgia, as when they remember Heather Blossom (is there a better name for an English lass of one's schoolboy memories?) and the May fair during the summer of love, so far away now. Wesley also announces Phaedra's disappearance. He wonders if she may be hiding out at Rooster's; her stepfather, Troy, will later suspect the same thing. The fate of this lost child, and Troy's confrontations with Rooster, heightened by Rooster's rude denials and his dark insinuations of why the lovely girl may have fled, drive the play's three acts.
In one of his more mesmerizing speeches, Rooster spins a tale about how he once met, on the A14 on the Salisbury plain, the giant that built Stonehenge. The proximity of this famous site is precisely why Butterworth chose to set his play in Wiltshire, as opposed to any other county in England. "These Antiquities are so exceeding old," wrote John Aubrey in the 17th century, "that no Books doe reach them." Rooster, who is all about pre-civilized presence, says, "This land is holy land," and many today agree. On the summer solstice, contemporary Druids still flock to the landmark to celebrate and carry out rituals, and I have recently learned of the Ancient Sacred Landscape Network, counterintuitively known as ASLAN, featuring advertisements with a lion's head and all. It is an organization that seeks to protect this and other such sites from excessive tourism and site-modernization. "I done that," is purportedly what the giant told Rooster as they both gazed at Stonehenge, and reenacting the encounter, Rylance assumed gigantic proportions, addressing at one point a lighter meant to stand for Rooster.
When he confronted others, too, Rylance's body seemed to expand, his posture cocked archly, tensed. Usually his back was toward the audience at these moments, as during his first stand-off with Phaedra's stepfather. Why has "your treasure" run away, Rooster taunts the intimidating Troy—and the almost unbearable silence as the two stare down and through each other reveals the influence of Harold Pinter, an imprint that Butterworth has acknowledged. Rooster's role becomes only more physically demanding as the play rises toward its climax, and for good reason did Rylance thank, in his playbill biography, his trainer and chiropractor.
The audience becomes accustomed to Rooster's exaggerated stature, a perception jolted by the appearance of two final characters: Dawn, his former girlfriend and mother of his son, and that boy, Marky. Rooster has agreed to take his son to the Flintock Fair, but in a moment that we surmise is habitual, he breaks his promise. Dawn's simple question punctures his pretensions: "What the hell are you doing, John?" Rooster may not act like a grown-up around his teen-aged coterie, but we suddenly realize he has adult responsibilities he largely neglects. Dawn's curt indictment points at a striking insufficiency and gives him again mortal, and problematically moral, dimensions. Another wounding moment, this one involving betrayal, will similarly diminish him. Rooster, though, is resilient and quickly defends himself. When Dawn or anyone else demands that he shape up, he bluntly calls upon the reveling, escapist traditions of pastoral, familiar since Shakespeare's comedies: "If you don't like it, stay away," he says. "What do you think an English forest is for?"
Without giving too much away, the play's ending is thrilling, and, as with the insinuation about the stepfather earlier, Rickson's production went farther than Butterworth's dialogue and stage directions in suggesting a reality (and not just possibility) to this dramatic world's final moments. The mode shifts into high ritual, involving Wiltshire soil and an ancient genealogy—Albion, Brute, Gog, Magog. Rooster here resembles nothing so much as the title character in Thomas Gray's The Bard (1795). The poem features the remaining Welsh bard, the one not wiped out by Edward I, and his cursing of his English persecutor—"Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!" In the performance I saw, Rylance presided over three curtain calls. The last we saw of him, after this demanding three-hour show, as the curtain fell for a final time, he was hopping up and down, a whirler-swirler to the end.
And yet Jerusalem will have to make its way over the years without Mark Rylance. Will later productions seem to offer little but glimmers of its first glory? Certainly, Butterworth's play is not without its challenges or limitations—the translation of its peculiarly English ethos and dialogue to different theater locales is the most obvious question, but there is also the matter of its pacing and playing time, which for some critics and audience members made the play lag on tendentiously or repetitively. In my view, though, while the language that Butterworth crystallizes, and its highly allusive, surprisingly literary texture, may seem secondary now to Rylance's award-winning performance (and that may be properly so), in the long run the play will retain its enthusiasts because of these textual virtues, and its being diversely stageable. Most improbably, Butterworth, despite telling of a washed-up daredevil motorcyclist and his band of teenaged Wiltshire druggies, pitches his story at a great height, and with high literary and even national-poetic ambitions. His characters may be down and out, but Butterworth, like Milton before him in an earlier "advent'rous Song" of England, "with no middle flight intends to soar." Rylance himself, in an interview, has emphasized the quality of Butterworth's language here, likening the play's verbal and aural powers to how Renaissance theatergoers would talk of "hearing" Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Finally, Johnny Byron's combat boots march straightaway into those fields of cultural debates about England. I was reminded of this complicated landscape most recently when consulting the contemporary-literature volumes of The Oxford English Literary History: Vol. 12:1960-2000: The Last of England? and Vol. 13:1948-2000: The Internationalization of English Literature. Or, to speak of the landscape literally, how about the numerous tensions raised in Francis Pryor's Making of the British Landscape? While cutting-edge farming practices alter irrevocably ancient fields and finds, those who live on the land actively develop past-honoring pursuits, from fairs of long ago to a growing cheese industry, whose varieties are marked out by particular soil and climate. These examples seem pretty quaint in a sophisticated world of "Sat Nav Britain" (as in satellite navigation). The top-down, patronizing approach of landscape specialists, as Pryor characterizes them, is out of touch with "the people living out there in the landscape, living real lives in a real world." However troublingly, Rooster represents some of those real lives. Amid the sometimes tedious debates about English imperialism, modernization, fragmentation, and internationalization, Jez Butterworth has tossed Rooster Byron like a firecracker into a henhouse.
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press. A new collection, Fall Run Road, recently won Finishing Line Press's chapbook competition, and is forthcoming.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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