New Theatre, Newtown, August 22
When Jez Butterworth’s ecstatically acclaimed play Jerusalem was about to close in London’s West End at the beginning of last year, people queued for up to 24 hours through the cold winter night to get tickets.
An instant hit when it opened at the Royal Court in 2009, Jerusalem is intrinsically English in both its idiom and themes – essentially the changing face of rural England as sterile, urban sprawl encroaches on its “green and pleasant land” – so much so, that some wondered whether it would translate elsewhere.
But it did rip-roaring business on Broadway in 2011 where it won rave reviews and a Tony Award for its leading actor Mark Rylance to add to his Olivier – and it deserves to do the same here in this cracking production at the New Theatre directed by Helen Tonkin.
In managing to secure the rights, the New is presenting the Australian premiere – and what a gift it is to finally have the chance to see this wonderful play.
From the opening moments you know it is something quite special. Sweeping you up in its rowdy, booze-and-drug-fuelled embrace, it doesn’t set you back down again until its defiant but poignant ending.
Butterworth’s writing is exhilarating. Exuding a muscular musicality, hilariously funny, slacker dialogue rubs shoulders with fantastical stories that pulse with a sense of pagan mythology. Meanwhile the play teems with ideas about change, misfits, storytelling and small communities.
Set in Wiltshire, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a gypsy who has lived for decades in a caravan in the woods on the outskirts of a village. Once renowned as a daredevil bike rider, his reputation these days revolves chiefly around being banned from every pub in the vicinity. But he is still a magnet for various young locals and hangers-on who gather around him for drunken parties and the drugs he deals.
The play takes place on St George’s Day, which coincides with the local country fair at which the May Queen will be crowned to celebrate the start of spring.
It opens with a girl in fairy wings fashioned from twigs, who appears on stage and starts to sing Hubert Parry’s famous English hymn Jerusalem, which sets Blake’s poem to music.
As she reaches the words “among these dark Satanic Mills”, the sounds of a wild, drunken party erupt offstage. Then as day dawns, two council officials arrive with a notice to evict Rooster from his camp following complaints from a nearby housing estate.
Once they’ve left, a bleary-eyed Rooster emerges followed by various hung-over youngsters and the middle-aged Ginger, who is infuriated that no-one told him about last night’s party.
Rooster is a magnificent, richly conceived character. On the one hand, he’s a drunken lay-about, drug dealer and irresponsible father. Portrayed by Butterworth as a latter-day lord of misrule and Falstaffian figure, he starts the day in typically English fashion by pouring milk into the bottom of a mug – but then instead of tea adds vodka and speed.
And yet he has an undeniable charisma, grandeur and defiant dignity about him, particularly when he is spinning his fantastical, spellbinding stories that can’t be true and yet somehow can’t be totally dismissed: stories about his immaculate conception via a ricocheting bullet, for example, or the Druid giant he met on the A14 who told him he built Stonehenge.
As Rooster holds court over his unruly gang, it’s like a subverted version of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It – just one of many Shakespearean resonances in the play, along with echoes of mythologies like Robin Hood and George and the Dragon.
Butterworth creates a wonderfully vivid bunch of characters around Rooster. There’s Ginger, a somewhat pathetic loser who insists he’s a DJ but is actually an unemployed plasterer who rarely spins a disc; Wesley, the local publican and a reluctant Morris dancer who arrives clad in full regalia to the merriment of all; Davey, who works at the abattoir and has never left Wiltshire, nor has any desire to do so (“I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop”); Lee, who is booked to fly to Australia the next day and so might just make his escape; the whimsical professor dressed here like a hunting and fishing country sort; and three teenage girls, including 15-year old Phaedre who has been missing for a week.
Backed by walls of corrugated plastic, Tom Bannerman’s set with its rancid carpet, battered chairs, smashed-up television, umpteen bottles and other detritus, instantly evokes the feel and stale smell of the morning after the night before in Rooster’s camp. Jennifer Ham’s costumes, Blake Garner’s lighting and Alistair Wallace’s sound complete the picture.
In this grungy space, Tonkin’s production unfolds with an anarchic energy that keeps you riveted for the entire two-hours-and-forty-minute running time (including two intervals).
Nicholas Eadie is in commanding form as Rooster, looking decidedly worse for wear with paunchy girth and grizzled grey hair but still boastful, strutting and defiant, while knowing all too well that his time is up. You understand why the people living nearby want him gone, and yet with his beguiling tales, he also manages to make you feel that he belongs there and that his uprooting is a sad sign of philistine times.
Jeremy Waters is outstanding as the weasly Ginger who longs for acceptance, while the rest of the cast (Alex Norton, Pete Nettell, Brynn Loosemore, Peter McAllum, Emma Harris, Anna Chase, Luke Carson, Tara Clark, Claire Wall, Lucy McNabb and Todd Backhouse) turn in solid, authentic performances.
Jerusalem is bold, raucous and darkly funny, erupting at one point into violence. But it is also elegiac with moments of rough poetry and surprising tenderness, notably when Rooster’s son appears.
For a non-professional, independent company like the New Theatre to tackle such a big play is hugely ambitious – but they pull it off and deserve full houses.
Jerusalem runs at the New Theatre until September 14