Jerusalem returns

Later this month, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem returns to the West End with a cast led by Mark Rylance who created the original Rooster Byron, and much as was feared when Burbage created all those great roles, we ask again: can there be anyone else to play this role? At least I think we do. Given that the Guardian is clear that the play of the century is back, might this explain why there have been so few professional productions since the original…? (Hats off to the Watermill theatre).

As a teacher, I discovered the play when it appeared on OCR’s teaching list for A level in 2014/5. It was a thrill to work on a text so new and so unexplored at this level. The challenge was to explore contexts and to recognise ideas and themes with the only clues being a handful of interviews in the press and on you tube. Those teachers who dived in were rewarded by a challenge which made preparation over the summer holidays exciting – a creative process as well as an analytical one.

I wrote much on the blog and contributed to a study guide with Neil Bowen. I thought hard about the threads of content and context – the ancient mythology of England, child sexual abuse, rural poverty, traveller communities and alienation of outsiders, the hypocrisy of society and societies rules, gender stereotyping, toxic masculinity and, eventually, Eco Criticism.

These are still relevant and the context of reception keeps on developing. Even the current partygate scandal can shed a light on the hypocritical society for whom rules don’t count. Wesley embodies this idea in his running of the pub and the habitual turning a blind eye to underage drinking implied throughout. In Davey we see the beginnings of the Little Englanders who fought so hard for Brexit to be followed – if the play uses Wiltshire as a synecdoche for the UK, then the idea of ‘getting a nose bleed’ when travelling into Berkshire or the insistence that any news which lies beyond the county boundary is not important, the themes he begins to explore are not hard to spot.

For most of the audience and those reading the play in schools itis easy to obsess on the subplot – Phaedra and the did he/didn’t he question regarding her abuse. I have written elsewhere about this and post links at the end. I believe strongly that Troy is the abuser, rather than Johnny and that the focus on male abuse of young girls needs to be explored in the light of the data suggesting that family members or acquaintances are the more likely statistical abusers. Part of Butterworth’s skill is to ensure that this question is never answered and that debate must be continued after the reading has ended.

The main plot line, it seems to me, is Johnny’s eviction, not for his sexual misdemeanours or his appalling drunken routs in Flintock, but because a local council wish to deforest an area of land to build houses. As we engage with the subplot of the play, it is easy to overlook this. Johnny is subject to a petition -a chance for the villagers to drive their scapegoat from the village to assuage their complicit guilt in his sexual antics (never a predator – more an animal taking what is on offer) and to sanitise their village from the ‘free troll’ in the woods. All this is additional to the legal process drawn up in Salisbury to evict Johnny from his illegal encampment in the woods simply to allow the woods to be cut down. An act of eco-vandalism which is clearly expressed by Johnny in his encounter with Fawcett in Act 2. He poses the key question in Act 3: ‘What the fuck is an English forest for?’ I think that this question often got a bit lost in my teaching of the text which lasted up until 2019. However I think that were I teaching it today I would start here and let the question resound.

I am now semi-retired, heading towards a full closure this summer, and was recently asked what texts had been the most satisfying to teach: King Lear and Jerusalem win hands down. They can’t be pinned down easily into a neat package, they cause me to respond differently on a daily basis, they are full of the most glorious language and they challenge on every reading or viewing.

I am a little troubled that Jerusalem is such a masculine play – the female characters are either children still being formed by their surroundings, or the damaged Dawn – trying so hard to be strong until her weakness for drugs intervenes, or again, Fawcett – striving to play down her femininity, which is such a hindrance to making progress in the (presumably) masculine world of Wiltshire County Council. Nobody seems to be interested in finding out whether the advances made by the ‘aptly named’ Mr Hands at the pantomime were reciprocated or just another incident of male abuse highlighted by the #metoo movement. As I say: contexts are still devloping for this wonderful play.

So, in short, as the play returns to the West End, I urge Heads of Eng;ish to be brave and to look to teaching it at A level. Yes, the language is scaldingly hot at times and yes the subject matter can be very uncomfortable, but surely this addresses ‘British Values’ as few other texts do. You may wish to seek permission and i hope you receive it. I chose to apologise after the event rather than to go this way. We taught the text for 5 or 6 years and no one ever complained or raised an eyebrow. The play was discussed at parents’ evenings and the language discussed in detail as for the poetics of such violent words. That’s education.

You might want to look at these linked articles if you are about to teach:

An Amazon link to the guide mentioned in the text: Jerusalem: a new study guide.

A discussion with David Didau and Martin Robinson about the play.

On Ginger and Davey: Jerusalem, Butterworth

Jez Butterworth and #metoo: Jerusalem context

EcoCrit and A level teaching #TENCOnline