Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experience of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem — a play addressing big themes and offering a Blakean vision and comment on modern Britain.
“He who is unable to live in society is either or beast or a god.”
I’m just home from seeing Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in the current revival on the London stage, and am chewing the cud on this urgent theatre work for our time. Entering the theatre, a massive St George’s Cross on the stage curtain greets us and the play opens with a beautiful faery nymph dressed in green coming out in front of the curtain and sharing a stunning rendition of Parry’s Jerusalem.
The play focuses on the extraordinary character of Jonny Rooster Byron, whose immense and extraordinary history we get bites of, mixed within the embellished stories that emerge from his gutsy mouth throughout, as well as what the other characters — his coterie of “sub-educated friends” — know or believe of him. This is a drama of epic myth, and Butterworth has described it himself as logos and mythos (see Newsnight Interview 29/09/2011 below). The circumstances are forcing logic and functional thinking, but Rooster himself (an incredible dynamic and reflective performance by Mark Rylance) is deeply steeped in mythic thinking and being — the tale of meeting the giant ‘who built Stonehenge’ is a fantastical example of this.
Many big themes appear throughout the play: rural life, the rural economy and the sense of isolation that can be rife in such communities, development, land access, earth care, and our strange and varied sense of what Albion and Englishness mean.
The central character lives a rich bawdy life, with threads of trauma that we learn of through Rooster’s history, plus an extraordinary sense of defiance and rebellion. He has survived in this woodland on the edge of the (fictional) village of Flintock in Wiltshire — though based on the real village of Pewsy, where Butterworth grew up — for 30 years. It is an exceptional dramatic device that we meet him on the day when Kennett & Avon Authority are moving for the eviction. A digger and vans of police are massing nearby. The play opens with two officials posting the eviction notice upon the caravan door, and they return at 5 pm to serve the notice in person. They are brushed off like gnats. We never see an eviction — the dramatic tension leaves what may happen hanging.
Rooster has become an elder, attracting all the elements of the area in towards him — lost, searching kids, old friends, old lovers — one appears with their child Marky in awed tow, and prying. Teenagers show up at his rusty old airstream caravan, hoping for fun, drugs, drink, a party culture, maybe guidance and advice. And they get it in spades from this bruised soothsayer, who remains solidly stoic to his own inner yearnings. There are two moments in the play where Rylance channels an inner shamanic power, the first to his ex-partner Dawn — curiously played with his back to the audience, as with several other key speeches, which I found brave and exciting staging. And again finally, at the end, sheathed in a single light from above, with a wind rustling through the trees, and bloody and badly bruised from a beating — Rooster’s final stand. Heroic, with no audience of his crowd of stooges, just us, the external world looking in.
Over the three hours, while watching I thought of many folk like him, or on a similar journey, washed up and at the edges, that I’ve met in my own perambulating life. Indeed I came away wondering how much of me is in Rooster — as we all should; and I feel this gripping tragic drama should really force us to look at our own part in society: how much are we the glue that binds a community? And how much do we challenge authority? How do these elements of Rooster’s life on the edge roll around within our inner wild worlds, and how close to them are we, really? This is a rich feast for anthropological study: the character at the edge, channelling power and Green Man or shamanic energy. Blake had that while living in the centre of the great Metropolis; and he also accrued a cohort of admirers who came to sit at his feet, led by painter Samuel Palmer, whose own visions of a pastoral Albion remain admired artworks of a bygone idyll.
Back in the distant past, my first degree was in drama. I and my cohort were shocked to discover that the ‘Modern Theatre’ module stopped after John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger (1958). That had heralded the ‘New Wave’ of theatre, but we were hungry for a contemporary energy and at that time (the early 90s) most contemporary British culture seemed to be folding into the political reality of capitalism and safe commercialism — stories and spectacle that makes you laugh or launches into escapism.
A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift
I fell out of love with the potential of theatre to really hold the mirror up to nature and to really be a change agent. Jerusalem has been ticking in the back of my knowledge since it first came out, and I felt sad not to have got to a show. I’m pleased to report that when I heard about this latest run I made the effort to get to it. It has all those elements of a bitter critique of our society, a kind of ‘anti-theatre’ spectacle that grips and brings us railing into the reality of exclusion on the margins, and the rare strength of an outsider in the middle of it all, indulging in the drama of Flintock’s annual St George’s Day fair, with the minstrels at play and full of shenanigans. All the while this heavy authoritarianism is hanging over.
A largely older (probably retired) white middle-class audience was visibly moved at the end, and many around me were in floods of tears. I considered offering to take folk to the many protest camps up and down our Isle: where brave souls are taking a stand against the felling of an ancient oak in Queen Camel on the A303; or the anti-HS2 camps where so much valuable habitat is being destroyed, needlessly; or indeed to Stonehenge, where for purely economic reasons, a tunnel has been planned under this most sacred of places. People standing up to destructive idiocy.
A Blakean vision of spiritual uplift while living a life on this extraordinary planet is something aspirational and achievable, and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is that golden moment of watching and then discussing and reflecting upon the human drama playing out upon this earth. It’s a must-see drama, oft-called ‘“the play of the century” (Guardian, first review, 2009). Highly recommended.
After the play, I felt duty bound to go and pay homage at Blake’s grave. I hadn’t seen it since the ceremony (detailed here on the site and in the film), and was nervous that it might be quite weathered. However the Blake Society members who clean it regularly are keeping it in great condition, and with many flowers around it it’s clearly a venerable pilgrimage site amongst the London Plane trees and on the edge of the other graves, and a relaxing space for busy Londoners. If we still don’t know our place within Albion and what our ‘Englishness’ is all about, or even our place in the world let alone on this small Island, William Blake’s work and continuing legacy is a great place to start.
Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker about the resonance of its current revival: The Tensions of Modern Britain in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem”. And Arifa Akbar reviews the play for The Guardian: Mark Rylance’s riveting return as ‘Rooster’ Byron.
You can read about the public celebrations marking William Blake’s new gravestone in The Unveiling, our post from August 2018.