Andrew Marr reviews Jerusalem: Contexts

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Evictions, protests, unrest – how Jerusalem saw them coming

By Andrew MarrBBC News

  • 24 October 2011
  • From the sectionMagazine


Jerusalem has returned from Broadway to the West End, but how does the tale about a drug-dealing, drunkard rebel in the English countryside capture today’s political mood?

Some call it luck, others might say it’s the flash of literary genius – the moment when a work of art predicts what is coming next. HG Wells reported on World War I before it had actually started.

At a rather less apocalyptic level, Jez Butterworth’s now-famous play Jerusalem describes the Britain of right now, with her financial hangover and confrontations with travellers, even though it was written more than three years ago.

“Genius” is a slippery, over-used word. I think it’s less that the artist is “the antenna of the race” (Ezra Pound), rather that a good writer, film-maker or painter, is looking around so intently that they are sometimes able to see things before the rest of us. Art may not change anything, but it can peel back the skin.
Byron is a modern-day Pied-Piper to a chaotic band of hangers-on

I saw Jerusalem right at the start of its first run at London’s Royal Court and felt immediately that this was something special. And not only because the main character, the low-life aristocrat of drug dealing and binge drinking, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is played by Mark Rylance in a performance of stomping brilliance.

I went about begging friends to go and see it because it was funny, desperately sad, verbally astonishing – and because it depicted a rural England we all know is all around us, but hardly see on the stage.

It’s set in Wiltshire, but the officious council bureaucracy, the under-age drinking and drug culture, the emasculated local festivals, corporate pubs and the smashed-up families can be found pretty much everywhere.

It’s the difference between the idealised rural England (slivers of tour-bus Oxfordshire) and the real countryside of bungalow-sprawl, derelict factory units, impromptu rubbish tips in woodland glades, sinister hamburger-tossers in laybys, empurpled stand-offs over travellers’ sites and local people who find themselves stranded by everyone from bus companies to banks.

Add to this the stuck, cyclical nature of Butterworth’s camp and village of derelicts and deadbeats and you might expect a deeply depressing evening. But Butterworth’s England is also soaked in the fiery poetry of myths of revolt – “and behind them bay the devil’s army, and we are numberless”.

Find out more

  • Jez Butterworth joins Andrew Marr in Start the Week on Monday 24 October on Radio 4 at 21:00 BST
  • You can listen to Start the Week again via the BBC iPlayer

It’s the England of tall stories and outbreaks of anarchy, the country of rural dissent which is audible in good folk music, such as Show of Hands or PJ Harvey’s songs, and visible on the inside pages of the last surviving proper local papers – but sadly invisible across most television, drama or radio.

“Rooster” is hardly a hero. He’s a drug dealer, rotten father and a maniacal drinker with a tendency to violence.

Yet there’s something huge about his imagination and defiance that recalls a Shakespearean protagonist, in a play which is partly a grimy contemporary Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think anyone who has seen him will dream about him.

Since, almost self-evidently, things are going to get harder in this country in the years ahead, and since, entirely self-evidently, we have meanwhile become a largely infantilised culture (babyish entertainments, babyish architecture, babyish language) a serious play like this, with its sadness, obscenities, anger and humour, comes like rain after a drought.

There is no simple political “position”. It mocks the rules ‘n’ regulations mentality as vividly as any right-wing columnist, and it’s as relaxed about under-age boozing as the most laid-back Islingtonian liberal. It just kicks pretty hard.
The attempt to evict Johnny “Rooster” Byron echoes the recent Dale Farm evictions

As I’ve already mentioned, there are tough times coming and the ceaseless debate about Englishness – what’s essential to it and what threatens it – is rising in volume again. Whether we are talking about arguments over traveller encampments, Europe or the City, there is a stroppier mood about.

The news coverage remains, inevitably, headline-shallow, but there are deeper waters too.

The nostalgic equation between Englishness and the countryside has been going on for so long I imagine Alfred the Great writing to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Dear Sir, can I associate myself with Simon Jenkins and protest at recent Danish house building, utterly insensitive to local traditions.”

A sense that English freedoms are being thieved by continental upstarts and their local lackeys goes back almost as far. Time for an update?

I hope that the majority of people who haven’t had the chance to see Jerusalem might get enough of a dim, distant echo to perhaps go out and read the play.