“I doubt,” wrote Kenneth Tynan in May 1956, “if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.” I feel much the same about Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem which, like John Osborne’s play, was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre.
Now, Ian Rickson’s great production is returning for its third London run (at the Apollo Theatre from 16 April, for only 16 weeks), with Mark Rylance reprising his towering performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron and Mackenzie Crook at his side once more as Ginger Yates, a figure of baffled gentleness and a hilarious foil to Rooster.
Jerusalem, which takes its title from William Blake’s poem is set on St George’s Day, as the Wiltshire village of Flintock – based on Pewsey, where Butterworth lived for a while – celebrates its annual fair. All the action takes place in a forest clearing where Rooster lives in a ramshackle mobile home, playing irascible host to a steady stream of visitors, selling them drugs and presiding, like a woodland lord of misrule, over a rolling series of raves and revels.
A former daredevil motorbike rider, he is a boozy, bucolic exile from convention and the constraints of regular citizenship; prowling the fringes of mainstream society, indomitable and pitiful by turns. Over the play looms the implacable force of bureaucracy and police power, as Rooster, after many narrow escapes, prepares for his final confrontation with the officials of Kennet and Avon council, whose absolute determination to evict him is matched by his absolute refusal to recognise their authority.
Almost his first words on stage are those of a free-born Englishman who, with humour, priapic fury and ancestral certitude, will not be shifted: “Hear ye, hear ye. With the power invested in me by Rooster Johnny Byron – who can’t be here on account of the fact he’s in Barbados this week with Kate Moss – I, his faithful hound Shep, hereby instruct Kennet and Avon to tell Bren Glewstone, and Ros Taylor and her twat son, and all those sorry cunts on the New Estate, Rooster Byron ain’t going nowhere. Happy St George’s Day. Now kiss my beggar’s arse, you Puritans!”
Much of the magic of Jerusalem resides in its intermingling of day-to-day life – the floats at the fair, the question of who is barred from which pubs and why, whether Rooster’s Lara Croft video game will work – with a deep sense of magic and myth. Byron claims nonchalantly to have “met a giant that built Stonehenge”, a 90-foot colossus who supposedly gave him his golden ear-ring as a drum – a means of summoning the mythic creatures of England in his hour of need. (Then again, he also mentions that he has been kidnapped by traffic wardens.)
The eccentric, bewildered Professor to whom Rooster is always hospitable expresses his creed best: “It is an Englishman’s duty at the first scent of May to make the turf his floor, his roof the arcing firmament. And his clothes the leaves and branches of the glade… This is a time for revelry… To be free from constraint. A time to commune with the flora and the fauna of this enchanted isle. To abandon oneself to the rhythms of the earth.”
To the less tolerant inhabitants of the village – and the busybodies on the New Estate – Byron is nothing more than a debauched waster, a bad influence upon their children and an impediment to orderly progress. To those who gather in his clearing, he is a hot-tempered shaman, a master of festivities and a spinner of mystical yarns.
As Rylance has put it, Rooster speaks to the youthful desire to engage with mortal risk, to be “Jimmy Dean racing towards the cliff”. In this sense, the actor believes, he resembles the tribal figure who presides over initiation rituals; who “loves that moment when a young person flowers or becomes themselves for a bit.”
Butterworth, for his part, has always insisted that Jerusalem is “a play, not an argument”, that he did not set out to write “a pamphlet” or a “state of the nation” polemic. All the same, from its opening in 2009, his creation struck a deep chord – or many chords – in audiences, addressing yearnings, anxieties and dreams of which they may not even have been previously conscious. (Butterworth has referred to theatres as “churches”, where our fears and insecurities are given voice in a collective ritual experience.)
What did this response signify? Rylance’s Rooster was not so much the spokesman of a generation, in the style of Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, as a speed-enhanced national bard, reminding England of things it had lost and forgotten; excavating the English psyche on stage in outbursts that were both unsettling and exhilarating.
Thirteen years ago, it was natural to connect that sense of bereavement and dislocation to the seismic consequences of the financial crash, and the human wreckage it had left in its wake. The characters drawn to the clearing have low expectations and depleted hopes; you can see the beginnings of the gig economy in the work they mention. They cling to rituals such as the Flintock fair and the rolling Bacchanalia at Rooster’s place as a means of reminding themselves that they are alive, and that their lives have some form of meaning.
By October 2011, when the play returned to the West End after its triumphant run on Broadway, there had been riots in cities across England; scenes of conflagration, violence and looting. The demons that would later animate Brexit were beginning to stir in this patchy, unfocused rebellion against authority in all its forms. This time, the words of the play – the furies it unleashed and the spirits it summoned – seemed even more contemporary than they had in 2009.
Ten years since its last London performance in January 2012, Jerusalem must be watched and assimilated afresh, in a transformed social and political context. Much of the language and many of the ideas that it made so vivid a decade ago – the importance of place, of home, of tradition, of control over one’s life – have since been tarnished by the bitter experience of Brexit, of tawdry nationalism and of populist nativism.
Yet that is precisely why the play’s revival is so welcome. Butterworth’s lyrical, ironic and folkloric language is just what is needed now to detoxify the Englishness that is the bedrock of the play and to remind us of its value.
Jerusalem undoubtedly celebrates a certain kind of rootedness, a sense of belonging, community and mythic energy flowing from bloodlines and from the land. But there is nothing xenophobic or mean-spirited about the play. Rooster incarnates a gruffly welcoming sense of identity that is unconnected to ownership or borders. For all his complaints, he cares deeply about the “rats” – the wandering, wondering teenagers who cluster around him looking for fun, tall stories and the disinhibition of the dance. He is, indeed, the maypole around which they cavort.
Jerusalem in 2022 represents a reprieve for all that is best, most anarchic and most bawdily generous in the English soul. In fact, at a time when the nation is led by little, petty men, Rooster and his army of giants have never been needed more.
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The story behind the best British play ever: A ThinkIn with Jez Butterworth
On Tuesday 19 April Jez Butterworth is joining us in the newsroom for a very special ThinkIn to discuss the story behind Jerusalem with James Harding. We’d love you to come along. Newsroom tickets are available for all Tortoise members in an Easter special – but don’t dither, they’re selling fast.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix, 15 April)
Based on Sarah Vaughan’s best-selling novel, this six-part series is part Westminster psychological thriller, part courtroom drama, with some dark Bullingdon Club-style deeds from the top Tories’ past (the frock-coated brotherhood is here thinly disguised as the “Libertines”) added to the mix. James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) is a ministerial rising star, best friends with Prime Minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfield), and blissfully married to Sophie (Sienna Miller), with whom he has two children. “What’s the thing about Whitehouses?” runs the rather chilling family mantra. “We always come out on top!” Hubris is fast followed by nemesis: the press finds out that James has had an affair with a much younger parliamentary researcher, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott) – who then alleges that, having broken off the relationship, he raped her in a lift at the Commons. Anatomy of a Scandal is lifted by the central performances of Friend and Miller, who dance queasily around the question of what James calls the “core truth” and the human cost of their life of privilege and entitlement. Michelle Dockery is also excellent as the prosecuting counsel, Kate Woodcroft. And there is a terrific twist, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
Better Call Saul, Season Six (Netflix, 19 April)
Fourteen years have passed since showrunner Vince Gilligan introduced viewers to the world of Breaking Bad, inviting them to believe that a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, could, if sufficiently desperate, morph into a crystal meth drug lord and killer. As Gilligan put it: “You take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface.” For five seasons, Bryan Cranston as Walter White – supported by a remarkable ensemble cast – made that journey with icy plausibility. When Gilligan announced that his follow-up project would be a prequel, portraying another process of transformation – how the hapless Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad’s underworld lawyer – his idea was greeted with much scepticism. Again, however, the acting magnificence of Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul has made this second transformation no less believable, and has broadened the horizons of the Breaking Bad world into the bargain – often to spectacular effect. Better Call Saul has been full of surprises, subtleties and welcome exploration of many of the most interesting characters from the original series. In this final season, we edge close to the beginnings of the Breaking Bad chronology – and meet some familiar figures in the process. Prestige television of the highest order.
Operation Mincemeat (general release, 15 April)
It has taken 12 years for Ben Macintyre’s fine book to reach the big screen – but, as John Madden’s excellent movie demonstrates to gripping and entertaining effect, patience in film-making is often vindicated. Who on earth, in 1943, would have imagined that a floating corpse, packed with false documents claiming that the Allies intended to land in Greece rather than, as the Nazis assumed, in Sicily, would persuade Hitler to change his entire counter-strategy? A group of British intelligence officers on the so-called Twenty Committee, that’s who. Operation Mincemeat works as well as it does for three principal reasons: first, Macintyre’s immaculate source material; second, the fine performances of Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu, the committee’s naval representative, Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, an RAF lieutenant seconded to MI5, and Kelly Macdonald as their colleague, Jean Leslie; and third, the beautifully rendered way in which story-telling and life-or-death intelligence intermingle in the minds and work of the principal players – a blurring personified by the presence of a certain Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), already tapping out spy stories on his typewriter. An extraordinary rendering of history that should really be seen at the cinema – and one that, as conventional warfare rages once more in Europe, feels unexpectedly and eerily contemporary.
Last Thursday 50 Tortoise members were lucky enough to have their own private preview screening of Operation Mincemeat, along with a Q&A with Ben Macintyre, the screenwriter Michelle Ashford and director John Madden.
It was an exclusive Friends of Tortoise event – to book your place at the next one, sign up to become the ultimate supporter of Tortoise.
The Great Experiment: How to Make Diverse Democracies Work – Yascha Mounk (Bloomsbury, 19 April)
No political thinker has done as much in recent years as Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and contributing editor at The Atlantic, to diagnose the vulnerabilities of contemporary democracies and to mobilise a remedial response – notably in The People vs. Democracy (2018). In his new book, Mounk addresses a specific question: namely the collisions between diversity, fairness and cohesion in modern pluralist societies. “The very logic of self-government, with its constant imperative to cobble together a majority of like-minded voters,” he writes, “makes it tempting for citizens to exclude those they regard as different from full participation in their polity.” But this temptation has to be resisted; not only because of the injustice towards which it leads but because it bears no relationship to the multiplicity, kineticism and interconnection of the 21st-century world. Yes, there is a potent human tendency towards “groupishness” (Mounk cites the example of schoolboys who liked the artist Paul Klee discriminating against those who preferred the work of Kandinsky). But – for all this divisiveness and fragmentation – the author is refreshingly optimistic about the potential for a “meaningfully shared life” and a durable civic patriotism. An indispensable text for our times.
Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life – Delia Ephron (Doubleday)
When Delia Ephron co-wrote You’ve Got Mail (1998) with her sister Nora, she can hardly have imagined that, years later, she would find herself re-enacting a version of the her own screenplay in real life. Capsized by the death of Nora and her husband Jerry (to whom she had been married for 33 years), she received an email from an old acquaintance, Peter, responding to a piece she had written for the New York Times. The two corresponded – and, both 72 and widowed, fell in love. Left on Tenth is charming and extremely readable, but it is no rom-com. Ephron’s diagnosis with AML (acute myeloid leukemia), the very disease that killed her sister, keeps at bay any hint of sentimentality or delusion that life is as full of neatly shaped solutions as the movies. The descriptions of her treatment are as harrowing as her account of unexpected love is uplifting. Ephron’s wit and candour underpin a memoir that is all the stronger for its recognition that the quest for happiness is rarely linear.
The Fifties: An Underground History – James R. Gaines (Simon & Schuster)
In the caricature of decades and their significance, the Fifties are generally perceived as a repressed, patriarchal, racially segregated prelude to the liberations of the Sixties. And all of this is true, argues James R. Gaines, former managing editor of Time magazine – but is not the full story. In this vivid portrayal of a cast of characters – some familiar, some much less so – who fought against the conformity, injustice and idiocies of their time, he demonstrates that the social movements that coalesced in 1968 had deep roots. The roll call is impressive: Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society, “the first sustained advocacy group for gay rights in American history”; the feminist historian Gerda Lerner; Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary, who paid with his life for challenging racial injustice; the biologist Rachel Carson and MIT professor Norbert Wiener who “converged on the heretical, even subversive idea that the assertion of mastery over the natural world was based on an arrogant fantasy that carried the potential for disaster”; and many others. Gaines does not dispute the tectonic impact of what happened in the Sixties, but he demonstrates beyond doubt that the icons of that era stood on the shoulders of forgotten or ostracised giants.
Familia – Camila Cabello
First of all, let us forgive Camila Cabello for her duet on this album with Ed Sheeran, ‘Bam Bam’: we all make mistakes. In every other respect, this is by some margin Cabello’s most impressive solo achievement to date, and blends infectious breakup pop – the lyrics draw heavily on her heavily-publicised split with Shawn Mendes – with rich strains of salsa, mariachi and cumbia rooted in her Mexican-Cuban heritage. This sense of cultural identity at a time of personal upheaval gives the album its binding theme (and its title). ‘Psychofreak’ (featuring Willow Smith) is especially good on the gap between fame and private experience (“Sometimes I don’t trust the way I feel / On my Instagram talking about ‘I’m healed’”). The reggaeton track ‘No Doubt’ is a candid riff on the price of sexual jealousy, while ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ explores the loneliness of silent emotional suffering (“It’s not stupid, it’s not drama/ It’s just trauma turned to armour”). Cabello has travelled a long way artistically since she left the girl group Fifth Harmony in 2016 and made her initial mark the following year as a solo act with the global hit Havana; and Familia suggests that, aged 25, she’s just getting warmed up.
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations – Mitsuko Ichida
It is surprising, perhaps, that a performer of Mitsuko Uchida’s distinction and experience has never before recorded Beethoven’s op. 120, which many regard as his greatest solo work for piano. Her interpretation, in any case, is nothing short of sublime – a conversation across the centuries between composer and virtuoso, in which Uchida proves herself more than equal to the wit and playfulness of the 33 variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, written between 1819 and 1823. The performance of the gentle Variation 8 is especially striking, but the consistency, rigour and creative command of Uchida’s work is palpable throughout. Worthy of comparison with Alfred Brendel’s legendary recording.
Paradise Again – Swedish House Mafia (15 April)
The Scandi-supergroup have a busy few days ahead of them: now that Kanye West has dropped out of Coachella, they have stepped up (in collaboration with The Weeknd) as one of the festival’s headline acts; and – 14 years after their creative partnership began – Sebastian Ingrosso, Steve Angello and Axwell are releasing what is, amazingly, their debut studio album. Across 17 tracks, Swedish House Mafia join forces with a remarkable range of artists, including A$AP Rocky, Mapei, Seinabo Sey, Connie Constance, The Weeknd, Ty Dolla $ign, 070 Shake, Jacob Muhurad and Sting (who features on the single “Redlight”). Since reforming in 2018 after a five-year hiatus, the trio has explored a deeper techno sound alongside their trademark house anthems, continued to look for fresh inspiration in different musical genres, and resisted the standard temptation to tour the world as a tribute act to themselves. No single band has the power to declare the restrictive era of the pandemic at an end, but you can bet that Swedish House Mafia will give it a try.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner