“Fuck me, the committee have only gone and approved it!”
“They didn’t mind that boring cunts would walk out?”
“Nah, they can have a wank in the bogs for all I care”
The above is an imagined exchange from the production team after “Jerusalem” was programmed for Sutton Arts. Yet it does offer you a flavour of the play itself. Crude, visceral and divisive. Written in 2009 by Jez Butterworth, it should most definitely not be confused with the play of the same name by poet Simon Armitage written in 2005! Butterworth is no street wordsmith, instead he has enjoyed a classic, conventional, distinguished career as a Cambridge graduate, playwright, and screen play writer for TV and film.
Unquestionably the most controversial production in recent years at this theatre, it is, at almost three hours, amongst the longest too. Provocatively staged immediately pre Brexit deadline, this is a play about identity and place. It is as if Ian Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees Mogg, and Nigel Farage are reimagined from their castles and country estates into a caravan in Flintock, an imaginary Wiltshire village, their expensive clothes and specious words stripped away to reveal the ugly core, on St George’s Day.
But instead of Jacob Rees Mogg we have wild gypsy, and former motorcycle stunt-rider, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, brilliantly played by Stuart Goodwin. A pied piper who lures youngsters to his drug and booze fuelled parties. He is a slob, and vain, simultaneously.
Shakespeare was fond of setting his plays and scenes in forests for a pastoral setting. Butterworth sees pastoral things as anything but idyllic. It is ironic that in order to write such a tirade about English nation hood, he should have absented himself to New York to write it, brim full of wildness, rage and defiance. Brexit Stoke, Newport and Sunderland is found here. Mark Natrass and his team excel themselves with a set soaked in decay, debauchery and disillusion.
It is an allegory for the English condition. The once great Rooster finds himself confronted by forces he doesn’t understand. Stupefaction, or fighting, his default ,conflicted response. Like Great Britain, his Empire is now gone, and he awaits eviction from his dilapidated home . His big man reputation of yore now reduced to that of a joke figure, humiliated, lost.
And as Brexiteers blame everyone but themselves, so Rooster brags defiance, that he will prevail in the end, despite the incredulity of his coterie. Perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of our country, his braggadocio is such that he tempts you to believe that maybe, just maybe, he is right. Maybe it isn’t fantasy after all?
The supporting cast is strong. Rooster’s mate, Ginger, inventively portrayed by Robbie Newton is amusingly bamboozled by the party that never happened being name checked by people who had attended it. Dexter Whitehead is memorable both as pub landlord Wesley, and a Morris dancer, and has clearly concentrated on his lines in more ways than one.
A missing teenage girl and imminent eviction provide the stuff of a memorable finale for a story which asks us to re-examine identity, and what the “real “ England is, or if it exists at all?
Director Emily Armstrong has done a fabulous job staging this production, which is an unequivocal success. It is unlikely to win over the Ayckbourn / Agatha Christie theatre going stalwarts – but I doubt if she ever thought she would. The upcoming “Gin Game” and “Guys and Dolls” will ensure normal business is returned soon enough.
“Jerusalem” ran until 23/3/19.