The Tensions of Modern Britain in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem”

“I’ve never seen the point of other countries,” Davey Dean, a character in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem,” currently in revival at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End, announces near the beginning of the play. “I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop. Seriously. I’m on my bike, pedalling along, see a sign says ‘Welcome to Berkshire,’ I turn straight round. . . . Suddenly it’s Reading, then London, then before you know where you are you’re in France, and then there’s just countries popping up all over.” When I revisited “Jerusalem” one night earlier this month, the audience laughed at Dean’s complacent satisfaction with his parochial existence, as intended. Still, I couldn’t help my thoughts turning to recent reports that British travellers at Spanish airports had experienced lengthy waits to have their passports stamped by border control, while citizens of the European Union sped through the electronic gates. “Rage as Brits stuck in airport queue for 3h—EU travellers ‘given looks that could kill,’ ” read a headline in the right-wing Daily Express, which, in 2016, was among those media outlets championing the pro-Brexit vote that eliminated the free movement not just of foreigners but of British people themselves, in and out of continental Europe. Fine if you’re Davey Dean; not so great if you’re among the two-thirds of Britons—and surely a higher proportion of the Apollo Theatre’s audience—who, before the pandemic, took at least one annual holiday in a country other than your own green and pleasant land.

When Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” was first staged, at the Royal Court Theatre, in 2009, it was immediately heralded as a classic: a ribald comic vision of debased, but still vital, rural English life, a decade after the turn of the millennium. “Jerusalem” was set in the fictional village of Flintock, in the southern county of Wiltshire, in the course of a single day in spring—the occasion of the annual fair. At its center was Johnny (Rooster) Byron, a drug-dealing, caravan-dwelling, teen-ager-enchanting, tall-tale-telling daredevil in a final standoff with the local council, incarnated with spectacular force by Mark Rylance, who returns in the current revival. The vision of contemporary England depicted in “Jerusalem” was utterly recognizable, with glimmering folkloric remnants—the woodlands traversed by ley lines that reputedly link one ancient spiritual site with another, and legends of giants who tramp across the downs—glimpsed between the barbarisms of modernity, where an excrescence of shoddily built new housing erases acres of countryside.

Even an institution as time-honored as the local pub is at the mercy of bland corporate diktat: “Public bar, saloon bar, pool table, ‘Millionaire’ machine, shit burgers, crap kiddies’ option, fiddly bloody sachets, broken bloody towel dispensers, fucking stupid T-shirts” is how a publican describes his own establishment. The language of the play moves between the vernacular and the elevated, informed by the repartee of TV sitcoms as well as by the poetry of William Blake. “This wood is called Rooster’s Wood,” Byron announces to one of those friends and neighbors who is urging him to surrender his illegal encampment before the bailiffs force him out. “I’ve been here since before all you bent busybody bastards were born,” he goes on. “I’m heavy stone, me. You try and pick me up, I’ll break your spine.” The pastoral of Shakespeare lies deep beneath the play’s surface, and below that are even older cultural strains. When the play’s climax shows a bloodied Rooster Byron attempting to summon the giants of England to his aid, Butterworth has sure-handedly connected contemporary to ancient England.

At the time of “Jerusalem” ’s first staging, Butterworth insisted that he had harbored no ambition to write a “state of the nation” play—that any political relevance it offered was purely accidental. That’s easy to believe: the play has the quality of organic inspiration, its mythic resonances inspired rather than constructed. In an interview in 2017, Butterworth spoke of having received a letter from an audience member that revealed to him a layer of meaning to the play’s final scene, which he hadn’t had in mind at all. The woman wrote that “the last time that she was naked, covered in blood with a drum beating in her ears waiting to meet giants was when she was born.” By the end of the play, Rooster Byron himself is on a threshold between one life and another.

That’s not, however, how “Jerusalem” was often received. “An excellent, unexpected state-of-the-nation piece that takes a necessary CT scan of the English character” is how Andrew Billen described the play in the left-leaning New Statesman, calling the drama “a new battle in the eternal English civil war between Roundheads and Cavaliers.” The Roundheads in this case are the clipboard-toting officials from the local council, with their smug relish in finally having the power to oust Byron. The Cavaliers are Byron and his gaggle of teen-age and post-teen-age followers who gather in the glade around his mobile home to procure and consume drugs, to drink cider and, sometimes, tea—this is England, after all—and to defy the rules imposed by schools, parents, society at large. In one funny but also genuinely alarming scene, Byron rouses his crew to storm Flintock village and “whip into a whirlwind a rough-head army of unwashed, unstable, unhinged, friendless, penniless, baffled berserkers.” Fortunately, pitchforks seem to be in short supply around Byron’s encampment, as do any other tools of actual labor.

Critics on the right, too, saw “Jerusalem” through a political lens. Quentin Letts, then the theatre critic for the right-wing Daily Mail, described the play at the Royal Court as “an invigorating, yelping, defiant portrait of 21st century shires England,” and “a furious blast at the urban homogenisers who want us all to live in a concreted realm under streetlights and closed circuit cameras.” Letts added, “All those Islingtonians who go to Glastonbury every year should listen!” Islington, a once bohemian, later affluent borough of North London, served for Letts, as it still does for many commentators, as a synonym for educated, left-leaning cosmopolitanism—a byword for the kind of people who, seven years after “Jerusalem” was first staged, were blindsided by the narrow but definitive victory of the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum.

In 2009, Britain was coming to the end of what might be called the long reign of Islington: thirteen years of governance by New Labour, the Party having swept into power in 1997 headed by Tony Blair, who moved to 10 Downing Street from Richmond Crescent, a tree-lined street in the heart of the borough. Having thrice led the party to victory on a platform more centrist than those of Labour governments past, Blair stepped aside as leader in 2007, his accomplishments in government and his personal reputation severely battered by his decision to send British forces to join American ones in the war in Iraq—a choice that was deeply unpopular within the ranks of his own party and across the nation. His successor as Labour leader, Gordon Brown, lasted only three years in the role, until the year after “Jerusalem” débuted, when a general election brought to power the Conservative Party, headed by David Cameron, in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Five years later, Cameron would call a referendum on Britain’s membership of the E.U., and though never himself a resident of Islington—when in town, he lived in swankier West London—Cameron shared the confident metropolitan expectation that his Remain forces would prevail. Two years after the vote, in 2018, a revival of “Jerusalem” was staged in the provincial Watermill Theatre in Berkshire, with the character actor Jasper Britton taking on the lead role. At that time, it was reviewed in the light of the nation’s recent convulsions, the Guardian critic saying that the play revealed “a yearning for a bygone Britain that never existed—a once magnificent ‘Holy Land’ of fairies, Arthurian legends and Stonehenge giants.” From this vantage point, Byron and his renegade hangers-on were speaking on behalf of England’s left-behind majority and clinging defiantly to a tarnished nostalgia.

When it was first announced that “Jerusalem” would be revived with Rylance returning to the lead role thirteen years after he created it, some observers wondered how the play might stand up, given the changed state of the nation. Were its female characters too thinly sketched in the post-#MeToo era? Was its definition of Englishness too narrow, given the ongoing interrogation of imperial conquest? (And was it chiefly a commercial ploy to replenish theatrical coffers ravaged by COVID by means of top-dollar ticket prices?) Such questions are resoundingly rebutted by the revival, which, like all successful works of art, speaks not only to the moment in which it was created but also to that in which it is seen and absorbed.

In 2022, Britain has entered its twelfth year of Conservative governance, almost as long a hold on power as that of the Labour government when Butterworth wrote his play. As in 2009, if for different reasons, there is a restive mood among the public, a sense that the nation’s leaders have become decadent, complacent, out of touch. This week, two by-elections are being held to replace disgraced Conservative Members of Parliament; in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where the former M.P. Imran Ahmad Khan was recently sentenced to eighteen months in prison for sexually assaulting a fifteen-year-old boy in 2015, and in the rural seat of Tiverton and Honiton, where the former M.P. Neil Parish stepped down after it was revealed that he had watched porn on his phone in the chamber of the House of Commons. The Flintock of “Jerusalem” is a tattered, soiled place—its woodland littered with empties and its pathways tramped by nihilistic roisterers. Increasingly, it feels like the current government is, too. Rooster Byron is one of the great antiheroes of the stage, but it was hard, when watching his defiance of all efforts to dislodge him, not to think again of another item from last week’s news: the confidence vote held among Conservative Members of Parliament on their leader. More than forty per cent of them voted against Prime Minister Boris Johnson—another larger-than-life character whose stories cannot be trusted and who, as he squats in Downing Street, seems no more likely than Rooster Byron to move on without bringing the place down with him when, eventually, he goes. ♦

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