Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron. Picture Credit: robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images

Reason’s misrule

The revival of Jerusalem reminds us of a still-forgotten England

Artillery Row

St George’s Day in the Wiltshire town of Flintock, and everyone’s getting ready for the Fair. Last year’s May Queen, Phaedra Cox, has gone missing. In a woodland clearing opposite the new housing development, an old Wessex flag — gold dragon, red background — flies from a grounded mobile home. Here dwells Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a former daredevil with supernatural powers of narrative and recall. Rooster’s wood draws in the lost souls of Flintock: teenage girls and lonely young men, a melancholic would-be DJ called Ginger and a confused retired Professor. They come for cheap drugs and booze, parties and company. It’s the late noughties: the rugby club is attending the Fair dressed to a man as Bin Laden, though in Jez Butterworth’s original script they’re dressed as something more eyebrow-raising.

I saw Jerusalem when it premiered, enthralling the public, at the Royal Court in the summer of 2009; I was a teenager. Thirteen years later, having officially grown up, I saw it again. Queuing outside Shaftesbury Avenue’s Wasabi in the sushi-destroying heatwave, I heard a woman explain to her friend that the play is about “English rebels in the woods”.

Modern working life atomises people

This rebellion isn’t organised, let alone political. In Act One Rooster whips his hangers-on into a frenzy, vowing to march on Flintock to “swoop and raze your poxy village to dust”. But it’s all in jest. Rather than rising up, this revolt is about dropping out. Rooster’s wood provides sanctuary from the pressures and constraints of modern existence. It’s a place for indulging poetic vision, however drug-induced; for a reconnection, however ironic, with collective folklore and mythology. The play speaks captivatingly about England and Englishness, but only as a consequence of exposing a need for these reconnections: to the past, and to each other.

In Nietzschean terms Rooster represents the revenge of passion, which breaks down boundaries, against an excess of reason with its tidy categories — epitomised by the bureaucratic prose of the eviction notice served on “Mr Byron” by Kennet and Avon Council. Rationality rules the lives of Flintock’s ordinary folk, so tyrannically that they seem deprived not just of mysticism but also of reason’s own pleasures. Davey, who works in a slaughterhouse, describes a life of brutal monotony: he kills 400 cows a day for not much money, and gets smashed in the same pubs every weekend. He needs the forest for the solidarity it offers, the oxygen of communal experience.

Modern working life atomises people, but it also makes them uniform. Mark Rylance, whose astounding lead performance has tied him to the play (he returns in 2022, along with Mackenzie Crook as Ginger) appeared on Newsnight in 2011 to discuss the play’s significance as it came home from a successful run on Broadway. He remembered a local eccentric from his childhood summers spent in Sissinghurst, west Kent: Mr Dysart, who lived in a council flat and liked to go down the shops dressed as a woman. It’s harder to make money out of people, said Rylance, if you admit that not everyone wants to drink Coca-Cola from the same sized bottle — “if everyone is independent”. Rooster, an eccentric, offers a chance for his visitors to experience their own buried eccentricity, even if for most of them it’s just a phase. 

Rural life is not untainted by the contemporary, as a certain pastoral discourse likes to imagine. Rooster and his band consume modernity in the form of speed, Red Bull and Pot Noodle, and are surrounded by modern detritus: broken TVs, grainy camera-phones, car seats ripped from their official function. But on the deeper philosophical tenets of modern capitalist life — working, saving, spending – they cling to their stubborn agnosticism.

Dressed up in rational colours, this capitalist regime of work and wages admits the nuclear family as the only legitimate form of solidarity. Phaedra’s step-father, Troy Whitworth, suspects that she is hiding in Rooster’s mobile home, and wants to bring her back under his roof. Macho and monochrome, he’s a performative exaggeration of the reasonable bloke; his apparent protectiveness of Phaedra quickly falls away, revealing dark, repressed passions. Kennet and Avon Council, similarly, speak the seemingly rational language of law and order, but really their eviction crusade is motivated by financial gain, the lucrative promise of extending the new estate.

Jerusalem was immediately hailed as a state-of-the-nation play, an expression of an England that somehow, somewhere, had been lost. Some critics worried that it was a little too English: that Rooster’s mystical invocation of English folklore, and his own deep ancestral ties to the land, moved the play uncomfortably close to UKIP’s nativist rhetoric, then making waves. (Brexit, however, was yet to flicker on the horizon.) What was strange about these reservations — as well as some expressions, this summer, of centre-left unease about the whiteness of Jerusalem’s characters — is the misreading of Rooster as John Bull, a stereotypical Englishman, and the total obscuring of the fact that he himself belongs to an ethnic minority. 

He lives in communion with the earth

Johnny Byron is of Romany ancestry, as the people of Flintock remind him in much less polite language. The British state has harassed and persecuted the various itinerant communities living here for at least five centuries. A recent spike in prejudice occurred in the mid-noughties as the right-wing press exploited fears about the accession of eastern European states, such as Romania in 2008, to the EU. Campaigns like the Sun’s “Stamp on the Camp” (2005) bore fruit when David Cameron’s Coalition government took power; the 2011 Localism Act, introduced by Eric Pickles, reduced the obligation on local authorities to provide stopping places. A marginalised figure made central, Rooster defied his demonisation in contemporary politics. Yet as Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) argues, Rooster also functions as a “spectacular Gypsy” — a fetishized exotic figure, onto whom fascinated yearnings for a lost England are projected. Even as they close in to destroy him, the people of Flintock can’t help valuing Rooster for the glimpses of another country he provides.

This obscured England is a land of enchantment, brought to life by Rooster’s extraordinary storytelling. He narrates how one morning, coming from a game of canasta in “a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett”, he met the giant who built Stonehenge; the story, and Rylance’s performance of it, transfixes. At the play’s climax Rooster invokes the aid of all Albion’s giants, all the “drunken spirits… who walk these green fields still”. 

He lives in communion with the earth, a green man, embedded in place intimately enough to sense its spirits. But if such essentialism seems exclusive, we should remember his threatened Romany identity. Like most nations, England is made of disparate peoples; Englishness has always been contested and multiple. The play also cleverly admits the fictive nature of these spirits. 

They live, after all, in Rooster’s stories, and one of Jerusalem’s great strengths is its refusal to distinguish between Rooster’s lyrical invocations of English myths and his obviously improvised tall tales: last night, he tells Ginger, the Spice Girls arrived en masse to seduce him, bringing “five Mars Bars”. Every story ends with a disconcerting appearance of something tangible: one of the Mars Bars, produced from Rooster’s pocket; the drum he received from the Stonehenge-building giant. These flourishes, which render the stories momentarily but spellbindingly true, point to an under-remarked aspect of national identities, Englishness included: their interlacing of the real, or seemingly real, with the obviously imaginary. 

The English still haven’t really encountered themselves

So much has changed since 2009. Our politics is unrecognisable from the artificial, twee reasonableness of the Coalition era. Today’s political discourse is charged with tribal passion, though of a kind curiously detached from place and embodiment. Paul Kingsnorth wrote a programme essay for Jerusalem’s first West End transfer in 2010, in which he wonders what will happen “when climate change comes to England”; in 2022, it has unquestionably arrived. The current production’s programme features an essay by Tom Margetson, sharply highlighting the further criminalization of Britain’s travelling peoples proposed by the poisonous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. 

Meanwhile, has England awoken? Having stirred in the mid-1990s, English national identity in 2009 seemed still to be dozing. As the driving force behind the Union, England saw its own national culture subsumed, more thoroughly (and voluntarily) than any other in the archipelago, into Britishness — a modernising, imperial identity which, after the loss of Empire, expresses itself through institutions rather than communal attachments. 

It’s easy to assume that, since 2009, the English have spoken. A liberal, centrist consensus identifies “English nationalism” as the driving animus of Brexit. No smoke without fire: the Conservative party which brought us Brexit seems content to push the Union to its breaking point, to govern Britain from England. 

But it’s significant that these supposed English nationalists speak, solely and relentlessly, in terms of political Britishness, albeit of a newly incautious and muscular kind. Their dreams are of big, deregulated Global Britain, plastered with Union Jacks in a kitsch concession to the desire for belonging. About little Flintock, and its inhabitants, they couldn’t care less. 

The English still haven’t really encountered themselves; that’s why they continue to find Rooster enthralling, and why — as he tells his son Marky, in a story of the hospital where the doctors highly prize his blood — “they need me”.

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