Apollo Theatre, London – until 7 August 2022
I was 19 when I first saw Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) at the Apollo in 2011. For me, it was the play that sparked a love for going to see plays and in particular a fondness of Butterworth’s work. I was lucky to get a £10 ticket fairly easily that day but it didn’t surprise me to hear that people were queuing around the block and camping overnight to get tickets.
Jerusalem captured a sense of urgency I hadn’t seen reflected elsewhere and hadn’t been able to articulate myself until that point. It struck a chord for me and a generation of other young audience members hungry to see it. Ian Rickson’s production now returns to the Apollo Theatre with all the vitality and urgency it had first time round.
It’s St George’s Day and Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is facing imminent eviction from his caravan on the edge of a Wiltshire forest. What has been a hangout spot for local teenagers, a sort of coming-of-age ritual through the generations, is now under threat following complaints from the nearby housing estate. It’s also the day of the Flintock county fair and the reigning May Queen has gone missing. It’s a magnificent play, one which touches on insecurities about Englishness, brings together the ancient and the contemporary, and contrasts the mythical with the tangible.
I’d forgotten how much of the action is taken up by characters telling and listening to stories about Rooster: tales of him being a daredevil motorcyclist, his miraculous conception, being born with his own teeth and a cloak, meeting a giant who built Stonehenge.
Stories give Rooster his legendary status and you can often see through the bullshit to see Rooster for nothing more than a wastrel who lives in a caravan and is laughed at behind his back. As Davey puts it, ‘you’re sat in your brand-new house you’ve sweat your bollocks off to buy, and find out four hundred yards away there’s some ogre living in a wood’. But there are other times when audience and hangers-on alike can’t resist the allure of his storytelling. And they’re not all completely unbelievable.
The story where Rooster recounts a recent kidnapping by four Nigerian traffic wardens from Swindon mixes the bizarre with such peculiar detail that you wonder why he would make something like that up. And even the utterly fantastical ones are backed up with tangible proof: the Mars Bar from his sexual encounter with the Spice Girls; the drum that the giant wore as an ear-ring. By the end Butterworth has the audience believing in giants too.
Questionable storytelling has been especially pertinent in the past ten years. After the coalition government of 2010, I seem to recall commentators saying that politics was no longer a two-horse race. I can’t help but lament we’ve gone backwards since then. Everything is so divisive now: you’re either left or right, leave or remain. In politics and in culture it seems there’s barely any room for nuance. And storytelling has been crucial to politics in that time. Brexit and political discourse have been dominated by stories relating to national identity, often imagined, romanticised and polarising. The stories told in Jerusalemfeel more like a warning now about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation. Even earlier this year, Tory party chair Oliver Dowden told a conference:
As I walk with my children through the calm suburbia of Hertfordshire… I actually reflect on the great fortune we have to live in a nation defined by stability, security… and, yes, Conservatism.
Dowden’s implied vision of England – suburban, white, middle-class – is nightmarish. It implies a rigidity which is probably not too far off the seventy-eight new houses on the new estate in Jerusalem and which also feature in its sister play Parlour Song (also 2009). It’s this uniformity that Rooster protests: ‘Them houses is lovely, clean and spanking now. But come two, three summers, couple hard winters, those windows’ll peel’.
The play has gained a new-found relevance since its last London run. It also remains just as funny, exciting and heart-breaking as ever. The opening, arguably the best opening ten minutes of any play, is brilliantly theatrical. A midnight rave with the blasting of The Prodigy crashing against the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ is soon followed by Rylance sauntering out of the caravan, doing a handstand in a trough of water and downing a cocktail of milk, vodka and raw egg. Ultz’s set is wondrous: an American airstream caravan, real chickens in a pen beneath it, surrounded by real trees towering up into the rafters and a clearing made up of Coca-Cola chairs and other detritus. One slight difference I noticed since the last time was that there’s much more green algae on top of the caravan. Is the intention that it’s aged with the play? It’s as if Rooster never got evicted ten years ago and the caravan has sat in the clearing ever since. A new set of kids are hanging around Rooster, Ginger’s still there clinging on, and history’s repeating itself. Fascinating and all the more poignant if so.
Rylance and Crook are on top form reprising their roles, along with Alan David who is also back as The Professor. The new members of the cast, particularly the kids, all provide excellent support making the roles their own. Rylance’s performance is so physical but there are also moments of stillness which are just as memorable. One of them is where he’s recounting the story of meeting the 90-foot giant. Rooster comes quite far downstage and looks out into the audience and ends the story so softly: ‘I watched him walk clean across the land, north towards the motorway, until he was off in the distance like a pylon’. It’s a line which has gained new resonance since the production’s last outing. There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (2016), starring Rylance in the title role, where the giant runs across the countryside alongside a line of pylons, itself probably echoing this line in the play. It’s testament to the greatness of the play, so full of cultural and literary allusions that it has brought about other reference points and gained new meanings since it was first produced.
We saw a preview performance on St George’s Day no less, and were delighted to get an extra Morris dance from Gerard Horan (Wesley) at the curtain call.
Jerusalem plays at the Apollo Theatre until 7th August.
Kemi Awoderu (Pea), Mark Rylance (Johnny “Rooster” Byron), Charlotte O’Leary (Tanya), Ed Kear (Davey) and Mackenzie Crook (Ginger)
© Simon Annand