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This Is England?

Anja A. Drautzburg

By Jez Butterworth
Dir. Will Felton
O’Reilly Theatre, Keble College
From 5-9 November 2014

This Jerusalem is the Forest of Arden on speed, ruled by a storyteller, a dealer, a magician, a gambler—Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Barney Fishwick).

A production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a bold undertaking. The boots of the Royal Court’s 2009 production—starring one of Britain’s finest actors, Mark Rylance—are indeed almost too big to fill. The added pressure of first night competing with Bonfire Night, makes the full house at the O’Reilly Theatre even more impressive. Even before the play has begun, the audience encounters live music, live chickens, the pervasive smell of ‘the mountains green’, and a group of manic ravers who start this long night of deep delving into the English soul. The play opens with a dreamy presentation of William Blake’s eponymous poem, followed by a powerful bang to counteract the dream-like atmosphere.

Jerusalem tackles big questions: where is home? Where do we come from? And where do we go? Jez Butterworth called it ‘an elegy for change.’ When the play premiered in 2009, it created such a stir that people camped outside the Royal Court to get tickets. Mark Rylance commented that ‘it struck a cord’ at the time. And it certainly still does. Butterworth negotiates questions that are relevant and topical at a time when Britain’s EU membership is being questioned, when globalisation forces us to reevaluate what identity means, and when concepts of home and belonging have become more and more fluid.

Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron is a renegade who lives in a mobile home in the woods and refuses to pay taxes. He is surrounded by a group of youngsters who mainly enjoy his company for the drugs and the alcohol that he supplies. It is St George’s Day. Change lies in the air. The county wants to remove the eyesore and, with it, Rooster, the king of this copse populated by a number of lost souls. One can easily get lost in the stories Rooster tells. He creates his own myths and has become a myth himself. There seems to be a need for stories, whatever their kind. Do we escape into folktales and myths for solace and comfort? Or do we party hard and rave the fear and uncertainty away? The play constantly oscillates between these two options.

The set is very much reminiscent of the original production. It is dominated by an impressive mobile home, plenty of freshly cut grass and old furniture. The team around director Will Felton and producer Andrew Hall have decided to go for an ultra-naturalistic staging, which includes the aforementioned livestock as well as dead pheasants, many smoked cigarettes, a raw egg for breakfast, and thick West Country accents. The attention to detail is certainly commendable.

The production has a rawness and energy about it that is captivating, especially in scenes where most of the cast are on stage. In large parts, the production becomes the ‘Barney Fishwick show’, which is meant in the most positive way possible. Fishwick has an impressive stage presence and a physicality that is a joy to watch. The achievement of the ensemble needs to be praised as well. In between the dancing, swearing, and fighting Sammy Glover as Dawn (the mother of Rooster’s son Marky) and James Mooney as Wesley provide moments of nuanced emotion and tenderness. The superb cast as a whole expresses a delightful playfulness. The audience may well feel tempted to join in with the game of Trivial Pursuit, or light a cigarette and swig a beer. The production manages to hold the fine balance between energetic, visceral scenes, and more introverted moments of nostalgia and longing for times gone by. A lot of laughter fills the O’Reilly, too, thanks to an abundance of comedy talent on stage.

Jerusalem is a long play and, admittedly, the production feels lengthy in parts. But it is certainly worth waiting for the mesmerising finale in which Rooster, abandoned by everyone, curses the council for evicting him from the place he calls home. Fishwick, drenched in sweat, mud, and blood, after more than three hours of almost uninterrupted stage presence, bangs the drums with a force and fury that can be called nothing but triumphal.

Anja A. Drautzburg is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Hilda’s College, and is a lover of all things thespian.