April 29, 2020

One of the most beautiful things about theatre, and perhaps the most poignant, is the way it disappears. There’s an air of mourning about the best work as a result of this: almost as soon as you’ve seen it, it will go. Great performances seem to be imbued by the knowledge of this fleeting quality, made to burn brighter by their mayfly nature.

Within a few years of even the most successful show in the world opening, only traces of that show will be left behind, and the best record of what made it extraordinary will only exist in people’s memories. A playtext might be published, leaving a record of what was said, and the production might transfer and run in the West End for a while, but it will always close eventually. Revivals will happen, new versions for new times, and the creatives who were part of the first productions will go on and do other things, but they’re rarely, if ever, seen together again.

Imagine a world where bands only ever played their latest albums, and all previous albums could only be heard on bootleg live recordings, no one could ever hear the real thing again. That’s the theatre.

Bearing this in mind, you can understand the elation of many when it was announced on St George’s Day that Ian Rickson was going to direct Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem again next year, over a decade after they first told that story together. For a great number of theatregoers, Jerusalem ranks as the most extraordinary night they’ve spent in a theatre, Rylance’s towering, Eric Cantona-like portrayal of the lead character, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, the most compelling thing they’ve witnessed.

These kinds of shows rarely come round again. The key creatives are too busy, with too many projects and calls on their time, and they’ve done the thing, anyway — they’re happy to move on. But Rylance and Rickson are going to revisit their greatest work, while still at the peak of their powers, after a decade when everything and nothing seems to have changed in England. It’s a truly amazing opportunity for audiences to experience something many of us thought was gone.

Jerusalem tells the story of a man about to be evicted from his caravan in a Wiltshire wood by the Kennet and Avon council. It’s about people living on the wild edges of society, and people who’ve fallen into the meat grinder of precarious rural life. It’s about the lure of the lawless, the country’s rebel spirit. It’s about England, in an ambitious way that few writers attempt and even fewer avoid embarrassing themselves in the course of attempting. But Butterworth did it triumphantly. Very few theatremakers living now will ever produce anything as good as this show was in its first production.

There’s a bit of the Tyson Furys about the play. Fury, widely thought to be the world’s best heavyweight boxer, is principally interesting to me because, like the folk singer John Martyn, he shows us that talent, like love, doesn’t always behave well, but lands wherever it falls instead, indiscriminate as lightning or Covid-19. It’s the idea Peter Shaffer explored in Amadeus — that genius is not necessarily accompanied by refinement, modesty, self-awareness, common sense. Genius just happens — sometimes to a boxer in a Bolton gym, sometimes to a folk singer with heroin and alcohol dependency issues, sometimes to a sex-crazed Austrian man-child. And sometimes it emerges in a play that seems to celebrate troubling things (one major plotline in Jerusalem centres on the whereabouts of the local May queen, who has gone missing on the day the new May queen should be crowned).

I had my own reservations about Jerusalem after I first saw it a decade ago. Growing up in Wiltshire, where the play is set, I and many others felt that Butterworth’s high octane, technicolour version of our world seemed in part like an effacement of our reality, which really had more in common with the work of Shane Meadows than the world of this play.

Jerusalem didn’t set out to represent our reality, of course — with its comedy vicar and Morris dancing, the play is more reminiscent of Alan Bennett or Martin McDonagh’s subversion of theatrical tropes in plays such as Habeas Corpus or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, its real references are in the theatre more than they’re in the real world. However, in a culture that paid no attention whatsoever to the world we came from, to feel that the one story set among us didn’t quite tell us right was a strange thing.

People who contributed to workshops during the play’s development have told me that the man they think Rooster is based on used to hang around the gates of a Wiltshire school, causing parents to drive in at the end of the day and collect their kids rather than letting them walk home, and ended up going to prison for several years for offences which were not entirely unrelated to this behaviour. To some, the play also effaces the impact of what he did. But this brings me back to Tyson Fury — Butterworth wasn’t trying to respectfully chronicle a Wiltshire community. He was writing about England’s rebel heart, asserting that the centre of our identity is actually to be found at the margins, in the woods, like Robin Hood.

Michael Billington has written of Jerusalem as a year zero for a golden period in contemporary British playwriting — so how will the play look to us, as it returns to an English theatre scene it so electrified once before? I think its darker themes will seem more prominent than they originally did. The MeToo movement and Jimmy Savile will make the unsettling story of the May Queen at the heart of the play ring out very clear indeed, and I wonder if that will turn the play into more of a challenge, a provocation to those who see it and enjoy it — a way of asking what exactly it is that they enjoy.

Perhaps the play will even seem like an exploration of the darkness and deformity at the heart of England, in the tradition of the late, great Irish writer William Trevor’s novels, like the Whitbread Prize-winning Felicia’s Journey, which laid bare the rottenness that ran through so much of English life long before we’d heard the whole truth about Savile. I also think the play could seem sadder as well.

The hope glimpsed at the end of the play, that one day on this benighted island someone might find Drake’s drum, begin to beat it, and rescue us from the state we’re in, seems to me to have been more or less extinguished by a decade of austerity, a realisation of the climate crisis and the arrival of the coronavirus. Jerusalem might seem now like a story about people who, if they were in our capital, would all live in places like Grenfell Tower, and a man who hasn’t woken up yet to the hopelessness of that predicament, who is still left beating the same old drum.

What Jerusalem will show us above all is the England that is under threat. Here we all are, being obedient and doing what the state says, remaining indoors and preparing to accept unprecedented surveillance into our lives, as the price, poignantly enough, for our liberty.

Jerusalem seems to me like a howl in the face of that: an insistence that there are parts of us all, the part we recognise in Rooster Byron, that still can’t be policed. We’re going to need to work out how to protect and cultivate that aspect of ourselves, as we adapt to this new normal. Returning to Butterworth’s great play will afford us an opportunity to think about that.