By Jez Butterworth
Teddington Theatre Club
at Hampton Hill Theatre until 20th May
I am just going to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The original production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem back in 2009 was such stuff as theatre legends are made of. It premiered the Royal Court Theatre to critical acclaim and subsequently transferred to the West End, to Broadway and back to the West End. It was directed by Ian Rickson and it starred acting royalty Sir Mark Rylance who won every acting award imaginable including a Tony and an Olivier for his portrayal of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron. Playwright David Hare has claimed it is the last successful ‘State of England’ play of the proud English theatre tradition. So, you know, no pressure.
Ok, now let’s shoo the elephant on its way.
It is St. George’s day in the imaginary village of Flintock, Wiltshire. The local county fair is on, with its wet sponge throwing and Morris dancers dancing. Through the air, we hear songs and laughter coming from the village square and into the forest clearing where local gipsy and former daredevil Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron lives in his caravan. Rooster is a highly sought-after man. The local council wants him out, having given him his final eviction notice to be gone by the end of the day. The local youths want access to his wide supply of drugs, alcohol and tall tales. His son wants to spend the day with him and a local thug wants to know where his missing step-daughter is.
The role of Rooster is the kind any actor would kill for. Rooster encapsulates the subversive spirit of England. He is both old and new, local legend and outcast, delving in the edge of society. He has an unmatched spirit of life but a darkness beyond what can fully be put into words. This duality is what writer Jez Butterworth excels at capturing so vividly throughout his body of work. He has an unmatched ability to blend social commentary, personality with something larger and mythical: a sense of spiritual folklore that gets under one’s skin. It is easy to laugh when Rooster tells a story of how he one morning met a giant who claims to have built Stonehenge, and yet one is left with an unsettling feeling that it might just be true.
Jerusalem is not an easy play to do. But together the creative team and the cast rises to the challenge and perform this modern English myth with a strong sense of comradery, heart, and joy that they generously share with the audience. Given the strength of the ensemble work, I am hard pressed to pull out any single performance amongst them. Steve Webb centres the cast and gives a solid Rooster Byron. He makes the role his own instead of trying to imitate any predecessor, which is exactly what is needed for this sort of role. His Rooster Byron is younger and fitter with a charismatic, former Rockstar sex-appeal that works well. In the hands of Marc Batten, Rooster’s would-be sidekick Ginger is portrayed almost like a lost puppy, both dependent and resentful of the lifestyle he never grew out of. Steve Taylor too, impresses as the local pub landlord Wesley.
Director John Buckingham has given the cast a freedom to play and breathe which serves the production well. It allows the text and the actors to really shine. The only thing I had an issue with was the random peek-a-boos through the fourth wall. For most of the play, the cast works hard to construct the world around them, envisioning the trees of the forest, the county fair in the distance etc. However, three of four times during the play, usually as a character tells a story or has a longer speech, Buckingham has the actors directly address the audience. It stands out because they break the rules of the world they themselves have created. I am all for audience interaction in theatre, but if one decides to take that route (and there is defiantly an argument to be made for doing so in Jerusalem, with its almost Shakespearian qualities) one must commit to that choice fully. Here it felt more jarring than engaging.
The design team has put together an impressive and beautiful world on the Hampton Hill Theatre Stage. Mart Stonelake and Alan Corbett have designed and constructed a highly-detailed set, complete with caravan and chicken coup, which is complemented with beautiful projection and lighting by Aaron Lobo and Mike Elegy respectively. James Bedbrook’s music and Charles J Halford’s sound design have put together a lovely and efficient soundscape and Lesley Alexander and Margaret Boulton have put together wonderful costumes.
Teddington Theatre Club has been ambitious in their choice of play and I commend them for it. Disregarding the theatrical and technical challenges of a play like Jerusalem, the timing of this play is arguably even more pressing now than it was when it premiered eight years ago. With the rise of globalism and as a counter result, nationalism, the question of what constitutes Englishness is more loaded than ever. Not only in the United Kingdom but in countries all over the western world have issues surrounding national identity, citizenship and patriotism. Plays like Jerusalem and characters like Rooster Byron can help us to see ourselves and who we are, where we come from and where we want to go.
This piece was originally written for and published on the London-based theatre blog Mark Aspen 15 May 2017.