Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, the central and iconic character of Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play Jerusalem, stems from a very English tradition; the rebellious anti-hero whose mortal enemy is official bureaucracy and social conformity. A pill-popping Pop Larkin, he stems from the same bloodline as Falstaff, making a defiant stand for the right to be spontaneous, to gather at will, and to celebrate the mere fact of being alive without permission from the powers from be.
To draw a more contemporary comparison, he channels the spirit of 1990s rave scene in its attempt to evade the police crackdown on illegal warehouse parties. Or even attempts by communities today to assert the rights of the ‘commons’ in the face of the privatisation of public spaces.
The sub-culture he creates is a space for bored youngsters and the marginalised middle-aged to congregate, go chemically crazy, and stare all night at the stars, away from the demands of sixth-form homework and nine-to-five jobs.
He creates this gathering of free-folk in a small Wiltshire glade. Like so much of the play, which is also set on St. George’s Day, this location is immediately, recognisably English. You can almost smell the mulchy undergrowth and stale cider. Just as the idiom of the play is a very Shakespearean mixture of classicism and crudeness.
Of course, Johnny has not sought planning permission to create this clearing or to stage his all-night raves. The conflict between him and the local district council, which is set on demolishing the site, is the central tension of the play. Though as the drama evolves, we learn more about the tensions within the outwardly merry band, and the additional conflict between our anti-hero and a local criminal whose daughter he is sheltering.
As you can probably guess, I was beguiled by this play. By the ferocity of the language, by the roundedness of each character – each eccentric yet immediately recognisable – and by the deep sense of rootedness within and exploration of a particular aspect of the English national character.
The uniformly excellent cast of the Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre were more than a match for the power of Butterworth’s text. They were equalled by the efforts of the production team, who used the relative intimacy of the venue to great effect. The Theatre’s mission statement is to “undertake the production of acknowledged classics of all countries and ages and outstanding modern plays”.
On this night in March, they staged a modern classic to outstanding effect.