Unsolicited theatre review: Jerusalem

Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, has been one of the hits of the season here in London. There has been pretty much nothing but adulation for the play itself, and the performances, particularly Mark Rylance as the protagonist. It opened at the Royal Court last fall and has since moved on to the Apollo Theatre for what looks set to be a very long run (well, April 24th anyway). And it will undoubtedly be hitting America soon. So we had high expectations when we went to see it last week. And now we’re completely baffled. This is a very long (three hours and twenty minutes, with two intermissions) and very bad play, much of which makes no sense whatsoever. And audiences and critics love it. An “instant modern classic,” according to The Telegraph.

The set is fantastic—we find ourselves in the woods outside the village of Flintock in Wiltshire, on St. George’s Day, and we hear the fair in the background, and people wander to and fro between the set and the fair in the distance all day and night. And we are gradually introduced to a whole raft of characters, most of whom are identified one way or another as rural misfits. And we’re introduced to Johnny Byron (Rylance), whose trailer we observe throughout the play, and who attracts the local kids, to whom he sells the occasional drugs. So we’re seeing rural England here, modern rural England, where traditional folks don’t fit in, and where it’s not clear what people actually do, but where housing tracts are taking over the forests of England. And the locals want Byron out—he sells drugs to their kids (whom it’s implied the incomers don’t treat very well), he’s been thrown out of every pub in town, and the locals and incomers (abetted by developers, it’s implied) have taken up a petition to force crusty old real Englishman Byron out of his humble abode so the forest can be leveled for more tract housing, but this is like so unfair, because he’s, you know, the most English of any of them, because he’s communed with Giants at Stonehenge, and hears the birds, and says rude and insulting things to people. Or something. You’ve got the gist here.

Much of this is played for laughs, and the audience around us laughed a lot during the first two acts. They were clearly surprised (as the West End Whingers were surprised) when a bunch of violence erupted in the third act, even though it was hard to not see this coming. Butterworth’s telegraphing throughout the play is a bit on the heavy side, frankly, but critics and audiences still claim to be surprised. Rylance, who is a fine actor and who is given considerably less to work with here than people think, plays Byron as an irascible rogue who is supposed to reflect some deeply held English values, but it’s a stereotype—he’s incapable of being anything other than an irascible rogue, even though he’s also, you know, deep, because of those long silences in the third act when he’s facing eviction. Sadly, most of the characters in the play are stereotypes as well. And those are just the ones who make some sort of sense. Among those who don’t make sense are the highly implausible former girlfriend and the six year old child who is Byron’s—Byron himself looks to be in his 50s, and we’re supposed to believe he’s irresistible to all women, especially those under the age of 16.

What’s irritating here is that Butterworth seems to have had the right idea in the first place—the marginalized in rural England, who here, as in real life, consist of the unemployed, and the unemployable, and the young (who often overlap), and the old. There is a real play in here somewhere, but Butterworth needed an editor or something. And some focus. He has attempted something major, trying to connect the myths of England with the realities of the marginalization of modern England for much of the population. But he loads it down with entirely too much verbiage, and implausibility, and a bit too much of the “England for the English” mentality that is driving some of the British Right these days. Yes, you can see the violence in the third act coming a mile away—but that doesn’t make it any more plausible in the context of the play itself. Chekhov’s pistol in the first act is supposed to be used, certainly, but it’s also supposed to have a reason to be there in the first place.

We were so surprised at this wreckage of a play, in fact, that we went home and tracked down every review we could think of. Whingers, as I noted above, loved the play, even though they admitted there were parts of it they just didn’t understand. Here’s a sample of some of the thinking going around:

When the comedy stops and the violence begins it’s a bit of a shock and we have to confess that we didn’t really know what it was all about. Butterworth’s teasing juxtaposition of the mystic and the mundane (Stonehenge and custard creams) is all very well but when we were just left with the mystic the Whingers were way out of their depth.

And yet they happily admit they would go sit through all three hours and 20 minutes again. Jeez.

And here’s Charlotte Higgins over at The Guardian:

The English love a rebel, a non-conformist: I began to think about the levellers, the diggers, the wonderful and outre sects thrown up by the English revolution and so beautifully described in Christopher Hill’s classic, The World Turned Upside Down. At the same time, Byron – fabulist, chancer, dangerous, oddly tender – seems to have some kind of indefinable connection with the land, with its ancient beating pre-Christian heart, that seems so rooted in the south-west of England. In Butterworth’s play, this stuff is all the more powerful for being so lightly sketched. Personally, I have a soft spot for England’s deep mythology (I read a lot of Susan Cooper books as a child). Overworked, it could all turn a little Wagnerian.

Lightly sketched—that’s an understatement. The fact that the play doesn’t hold together between the hystrionics doesn’t seem to register on Higgins.

I don’t mean to just pick on the Whingers and Higgins—they’re just representative of a theatre-going class that doesn’t seem to mind the fact that what they see on the stage often makes no sense whatsoever, but as long as it makes them laugh, they don’t seem bothered. What does seem to unify all these folks is the appearance that Butterworth is addressing something deeply serious–Englishness. Well, of course he is—that’s why we’re disappointed. Yes, it’s a non-mainstream view of Englishness which is messy and dirty, which is what everyone seems to find so appealing. And yes, rural England is in trouble. The Labour party has been no better than the Tories in their ongoing war against the English countryside, and people who make their living from the countryside—a tradition in England that goes back thousands of years, and which is still a significant economic and social sphere for a sizable percentage of the English population—find themselves adrift, both socially and economically.

We’re way outside of the mainstream here, and it is to Butterworth’s credit that he takes them seriously, or seems to, anyway. But treating everyone as a certain kind of stereotype does not help, nor does enobling Bryon when the reasons for it aren’t clear. Yes, he’s supposed to be an archetype, but it’s awfully vague about what. It’s that very vagueness that most audiences find appealing, I suspect. Any further clarity and Byron probably becomes quite unappealing—he sells drugs to teenagers, makes a public nuisance of himself, seems to have casual sexual relations with minors, and has long given up responsibility for what most of us take responsibility for. But because he sacrificed himself (in one of the weirder backstories of the play), and listens to the birds, and has seen giants, we’re supposed to find him deeply moving and symbolic. Rylance does his best, which is considerable, but Byron’s mythical status escaped us.

Butterworth is addressing something serious here, or seems to think he is, but he’s addressing it in a frightfully lazy, disjointed and possibly racist way (although only Dominick Cavendish of The Telegraph seems to have commented on this latter point). And it’s not much different from the “Englishness” that we’ve seen for decades on English television, ranging from Rab C. Nesbitt way on back to Steptoe and Son. We want this to be a better play, not the condescending one that it is. But maybe we’re just missing something. The fact that much of it is outright blather without an ounce of dramatic tension doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. There’s clearly a hunger out there for plays about this. I expect so see many more of them coming along. All you need, apparently, is some dialogue about ley lines and trailer parks and you’re all set.

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4 replies »

  1. Wuf,

    Sounds as though the “kitchen sink school” has moved outdoors – to ill effect. Although I will admit that that group did have something to say – it just wasn’t very deep or interesting, long term….

    One wonders if the theater going public is so easily fooled by the emperor’s new clothes here because no one really wants to address the sense of oncoming evil that is shadowing so much of 21st century life these days. And embracing Butterworth’s confused ramblings is a way to claim to “see” what they don’t – that England, like America, is in a process of devolution/disintegration that no one yet has courage to write/act/make art about honestly yet – because it’s too fearsome and/or painful to face….

    I keep looking at the mad embrace of all things metaphysical – from magicians like Harry Potter to vampires like that “Twilight” twit – and I see some mad desire to find good in uncertainty – nice sorcerers, loving vampires, etc. And what I see is desperation – sort of, to put it in typically Western Judeo-Christian terminology, to say to oneself: “Well, maybe hell won’t be so bad….”

    Yes it will. And unless our artists stand up and say so, who will?

    Rewarding those artists who obfuscate, as this artist seems to be doing, is like listening to that guy mumbling to himself in the subway and proclaiming him a prophet.

    Thanks for taking him on, Wuf….

  2. I think you’ve nailed part of it–the sense of disintegration that’s occurring here, although I suspect it’s not as grevious as it is in America, and frankly I think that sense of disintegration is a bit overdone here. There is a long rural culture here, spanning close to a thousand years, that’s facing heavy pressures. But it’s a deep culture too, and has adapted before. And I think that’s the point Butterworth was trying to make–however badly. There’s still a chance that someone will write an intelligent drama about it, too. I hope this isn’t the best we’re gong to get.

    No doubt it will be hitting the American shores at some point. I wonder if they’ll be as befuddled as we were. Of course, they love Phantom as much there as people do here. I’ve long given up trying to predict this stuff. We’re the only people we know who have walked out on Helen Mirren–twice.

    • I might take issue with Jim’s assertion that nobody is confronting the disintigration of American culture. Can’t comment on the theater, but I just finished re-reading Neuromancer. Gibson has been on it since the ’80s in a breathtakingly dystopian fashion.

  3. Well said.

    In fairness I thought the first act was first rate comedy but thereafter it didn’t really have anywhere to go (and yet it went on for three hours). As it shifted gears towards tragedy it lost its way. The dramatic pretensions were just that – pretensions. Byron is a fun character but I just didn’t buy into the vague allusions to mystical Albion. At all. By the time Byron’s son reappears with impossible convenience the self-indulgence and waywardness really grates. And yet at that exact scene the young woman sitting next to me was crying real tears. Mystifying.

    Why the critical love-in? The perceived edginess of the Royal Court? The modernity of the script’s language and touchstones? The strength of the lead performance? Perhaps, but surely someone would have revelled in the chance to buck the consensus and take a stand for common sense? Anyone with a critical eye could see the play was much too long, unfocused, and, frankly, shallow. The critics (and much of the middle class, middle aged audience) somehow fell for this Rooster Byron, but if they found him living near their house (and their children) they would doubtless be horrified. All rather mystifying.

    Still, I think it’s worth seeing for the early comedy and a beguiling central performance, so long as you keep one eyebrow arched.