Jez Butterworth first became famous with Mojo, an urban gangster story that brought wit, swagger and terrifying violence into the heart of the West End. He seemed the ultimate cosmopolitan: a regular fixture at media parties and one of the few writers whose name and face sold magazines. And then, after several other high profile projects, including the Nicole Kidman movie Birthday Girl, he moved to Somerset, where he lives on a small farm and breeds pigs.
Was this a search for a mellower side? A quest for a gentler, more bucolic muse?
Was it hell.
Jerusalem is one of the most anarchic, hilarious, fiercely felt plays to explode onto a London stage in years. It’s at once a celebration and damnation of rural England’s past and present, a modern myth that’s marinated in the dragons, giants and wizards of the past. Here are echoes of Shakespeare and Chaucer, as well as, in the namesake of its self-mythologising hero, Byron. And of course, in the play’s title, William Blake’s Jerusalem. Here is ancient magic and folklore —
I’ve seen a lot of strange things in this wood. I’ve seen a plague of frogs. Of bees. Of bats. I seen a rainbow hit the earth and set fire to the ground. I seen the air go still and all sound stop and a golden stag clear this clearing … I heard an oak tree cry. I’ve heard beech sing hymns. I seen a man they buried in the churchyard Friday sitting under a beech eating an apple on Saturday morning … I seen women burn love letters. Men dig holes in the dead of night. I seen a young girl walk down here in the cold dawn, take all her clothes off, wrap her arms around a broad beech tree and give birth to a baby boy … Elves and fairies you say. Elves and fairies.
— smashed together with pop culture —
Look. You want the truth? I was minding my own business. Settling in, spliff, Antiques Roadshow, when there’s a knock at the door. I get up and I answers, and standing outside are all five birds off of Girls Aloud. They’ve got a case of Super T, two hundred Rothmans. Five Mars bars. I try to slam the door but they bum-rush me clean across the kitchenette and onto the bed. Nicky guards the door while Kimberley, Nadine, what’s-her-name and the other one go to work. Three hours. Unspeakable acts … By this point the girls has worked, they’re next door riding on each other. It’s a complete waste of time. They could have done that at home … That’s all you missed. But don’t worry. We saved you a Mars bar.
— all set in a woodland glade in Wiltshire, strewn with empty bottles, cocaine wraps and (real) chickens, in the shadow of a full-size, chrome plated mobile home. This is the domain of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, former daredevil biker, occasional husband and father, full-time purveyor of pills and whisky to the teenagers of Flintock. Byron has lived here now for decades, as the woods have receded and new estates grown up. Kids he used to drink with are now parents, teachers, council officers; and now the council is coming for him, serving an eviction notice in the first scene of the play. It’s May Day, the morning of the Flintock Fair, the aftermath of a wild night, and the countdown to the crowning of this year’s new May Queen. Only last year’s Queen, Phaedra Cox, is missing, and hasn’t been seen for three days.
Johnny is the heart of the play, a hell-raising, rabble-rousing lord of misrule: part Falstaff, part Elf King, part Beowulf. Brilliant, erudite and dangerous, he’s what Powell and Pressburger might have created if they’d just discovered crack: you wouldn’t leave your daughter with him, and if she went missing he’s the first place you’d look. And he’s embodied — there’s no other word — by Mark Rylance, one of the most exciting actors alive. Rylance, along with Simon Russell Beale, is rare in contemporary culture in being a purely theatrical star. He’s barely known to film or television audiences, but he commands the stage like an emperor, every sentence spitting sparks. His performance is utterly bewitching: when he tells his teenaged acolytes about the day he met a giant, the entire audience is spellbound, wanting to believe. Butterworth’s brilliance here is to create a character who’s at once precise and utterly ambiguous: we know exactly what Johnny is like, but we don’t feel that we know him at all. As they play’s mysteries deepen, and darker secrets are revealed, the ambiguity remains: is Johnny hero, villain or victim? And are we, enchanted by him, somehow complicit in his fate?
Jerusalem is sprawling, epic and noisy, crowded with characters, diversions and ideas. There are terrific performances from Mackenzie Crook as Johnny’s lanky sidekick Ginger, Danny Kirrane as Davey and Aimee-Ffion Edwards as the missing, mysterious Phaedra, and sometimes a dozen people on stage. At times there’s so much going on, visually, verbally and intellectually that the play seems almost to upend itself, gorged on its own antic spirit. But if it sometimes bites off more than it can chew, you can’t fault the sharpness of its teeth. It’s full of real anger at society’s abandonment of young people, its loss of tradition, its abandonment of myth. But it’s not in any way nostalgic. This is not a misty-eyed Daily Mail Golden Age show — there has always been violence, always been drink, and we have always cruelly punished rebels, just as soon as we have tired of their embrace. Instead, it strips our uncertainties naked: about youth, sexuality, history and England. There’s nowhere to hide in Jerusalem, and as the story thunders headlong to its climax, Butterworth offers no solutions, but begs us not to look away.