By Eleanor Winn
Winner of The Connell Guides Essay Prize 2015.
A few years ago, I accidently went to see Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem.
I’m fairly sure it’s not possible to read a book by accident, or a poem for that matter, so maybe experiencing literature entirely unintentionally made me see it in a different light. However, that still doesn’t explain the huge impact that Jerusalem had on me.
I didn’t have a clue what I was at the theatre to see until the moment the curtain went up. I was only there because we had accidently ended up with an extra ticket when Mum couldn’t come, because she had accidentally gotten a cold when she had accidentally forgotten her umbrella. The reality of the play only really dawned on me when the curtain rose above a grotty, rusting 70s caravan in the middle of a dump of worn-out furniture, where a neon-painted crowd raved to strobe lighting and deafening music. At that moment, I understood that Jerusalem was going to be anything but predictable, even for those audience members who actually knew what they were there to see.
It’s hard to make a character immoral, detestable and yet hopelessly likeable, but that’s just what Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the unlikely hero of Jerusalem, is. At first he appears to be just a Fagan-like outcast who leads the local Wiltshire youth astray with parties, yarns and uncertain friendship. But “Rooster” comes to be a symbol for much more than that. He is as much a part of the ancient wooded landscape where he lives as it is of him:
“JOHNNY: I ain’t scared of Kennet and Avon. I been running rings round that lot since before you were born. There’s council officials ten years dead, wake up in cold wet graves hollering the name of Rooster Byron.”
I found the bleakness behind this crude, unruly humour very affecting, as Rooster battles in vain against the council trying to develop his land.
A few minutes in, I thought I was beginning to understand that this was a simple (if eccentric) play that fell neatly into the category of gritty, rudely offbeat comedy. I was completely wrong, of course, because Jerusalem, like its protagonist, doesn’t follow the rules. I realized that it was more akin to a fairytale than anything – even if Rooster isn’t your standard princess and “just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef” isn’t exactly a magical land far, far away. But that’s just what I find so compelling about Jerusalem: it walks a strange, contradictory line between the modern and the mythical.
For me, the raw authenticity of Rooster and his crew of oddball ne’er-do-wells actually makes their story more magical than the fairytales we know and love. The play is a single scene, set in one unchanging, sunlit glade on a St George’s Day afternoon and, although we hear the celebrations from the nearby town of Flintock, and although various characters wander between the two, Rooster’s wood feels like a different world – one in which time barely exists. Above all, Johnny Rooster Byron himself seems like a myth:
“JOHNNY: …I once met a giant that built Stonehenge.
DAVEY: Hang on. When you say ‘giant’. Do you mean big bloke, or, like, giant. I mean, how tall was he?
JOHNNY: It’s hard to tell because he was sitting down. Maybe ninety,
a hundred foot. Give or take.
GINGER:…What did you chat about?
JOHNNY: This and that. The weather mostly. But in passing, he did
mention he built Stonehenge.’
I love the hilarious juxtaposition of Rooster’s recounting of a casual chat he had with a giant, and it perfectly conveys the threshold of reality that Rooster inhabits.
Rooster personifies England, the same archaic England of the Blake poem that the play’s title references, with all its forgotten legends and stubborn flaws, and an undeniable nostalgic sadness for this disappearing world permeates the play. He reminds me of a modern day King Arthur as he weaves ancient yarns and rules over his idyllic “kingdom”. Except that Rooster has been shunted to the fringes of society, soon to be ousted by the Council’s looming “New Estate”. This contrast is particularly poignant in Rooster’s rousing speech to his comrades:
“JOHNNY: This, Wesley, is a historic day. 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 wonder at the genius, guts and guile of the Flintock
I can’t help but feel that if King Arthur were to return to the modern day, this is exactly the kind of absurd speech he would end up making, underlining just how bygone Rooster’s England is. The same can be said of Phaedra, the young ‘May Queen’ of Flintock. She is the only other character who seems to be a part of Rooster’s parallel, mythical world (where the others almost feel like trespassers). We hear of Phaedra’s disappearance from the outset, but only see her towards the end of the play when she confides in Rooster that she has run away because her successor is soon to be picked at the fair. She expresses this heartrendingly in the line: ‘I’m only the May Queen till six o’clock. After six, that’s that. I’m just Phaedra Cox again”. Dressed as a fairy, she is somewhere between Cinderella and The Tempest’s Miranda. I see her as a very affecting depiction of the waning glory of Rooster’s world, as she too has overstayed her zenith and is soon to fade from greatness.
But Jez Butterworth doesn’t get caught up in nostalgia, and what I find most intriguing about the play is the troubling possibility it leaves open: that Rooster may not be a lost hero, just a delusional drunkard. His moral duplicity could be seen as disillusioning, but I think it is what makes the play so powerful. I don’t believe that we can place him in either category: he is defiantly paradoxical.
I’m still not sure this really explains why Jerusalem inspired me so profoundly: I can’t say I have much in common with Johnny Rooster Byron. But there’s a magic and charm that emanates in every line of the play: undetectable at first, but there even in Rooster’s first entrance, when he erupts from his caravan ‘wiry. Weathered; drinker’s mug. Bare chest. Helmet. Goggles. Loudhailer.’ This magic smolders on through the whole ‘beggar’s banquet’ (as Rooster calls it), but only flares up in the final lines. I would call this climactic finale ‘unexpected’, but that word no longer held much significance for me by the end of this accidental theatre visit, so I’ll describe it as ‘electrifying’. In the final moments of Jerusalem, Rooster makes a haunting speech, which struck me as reminiscent of Prospero’s threat to Caliban in The Tempest (“For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps, / Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up”). In an unprecedentedly powerful monologue, Rooster beats ritualistically on a drum and chants:
“I, Rooster Johnny Byron, hereby place a curse
Upon the Kennet and Avon Council…
Any uniform which brushes a single leaf of this wood
Is cursed, and he who wears it this St George’s Day,
May he not see the next”
Perhaps what I found so thought provoking about Jerusalem was that it wasn’t the Kennet and Avon Council that was Rooster’s real enemy after all. At the end of the play, Rooster is forced to confront (and here’s another surprise) the wife and son who he abandoned in pursuit of this aimless existence. So maybe his real enemies were actually his own mistakes. I think that idea is hard to just forget about.
Deep down, we are all innately nostalgic. But Jerusalem isn’t simply appealing to a desire for ‘Ye Olde England’. For all its humour and seeming triviality, it remains unsettling. Rooster’s story doesn’t end happily, and I left the theatre with the grim certainty that he would indeed be banished from his wood. However, isn’t this for the better? We, as Rooster’s charmed audience, have to come to terms with what he couldn’t: that his lifestyle feels disturbingly stagnant. Pivotally, his friendships prove insubstantial. This is movingly portrayed when Ginger, Rooster’s right hand man, states, “I thought we was mates”, and Johnny replies, “We are mates”. But in a tragic echo of this towards the end, Ginger is instead met by “I’m not your friend. I’m Johnny Byron. I’m nobody’s friend.”
So I think that, whilst Butterworth is acknowledging the Rooster-like resistance to change inside all of us, the play is actually accepting of modernity. Nonetheless, for me, Rooster is absolutely not a disappointing hero. He represents England’s unsung past –noble legends, ignoble faults and all – and through him Butterworth strives for society to acknowledge this history, not just exile it into obscurity.
Perhaps the explanation of Jerusalem’s lasting impact on me is simply that I agree with him.