Songs from the Wood: New Theatre’s Jerusalem

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a twenty-first century pastoral hymn to a mythic England, a country fast disappearing under the greedy clutches of urban sprawl and gentrification, and is filled with an anarchic sense of life and carpe diem, of grabbing life by the horns and riding it until it stops. Consider, then, that the play was written in 2009, and despite being the subject of four subsequent seasons in London’s West End and on Broadway, this is it’s Australian premiere production at Newtown’s New Theatre.
Jerusalem tells the story of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, a man who has lived in his caravan in the Wiltshire forest for close to thirty-odd years, becoming in the meantime something of a local legend, a rite of passage, and a surrogate father-figure to many local teenagers in his time. But on the morning of April 23, St George’s Day, a reckoning has been heard – he has twenty-four hours to vacate the land he is squatting on, or risk forcible extraction and imprisonment.

On Tom Bannerman’s set – a corrugated crucible of iron and tin sheeting, wood, decaying creepers, distant trees; an assortment of orphaned chairs and tables, a bar fridge, an obliterated television – the various council workers, hangers-on, misfits, eccentrics and no-hopers congregate and deliberate, some coruscating like diamonds, others meandering like worms through the soil. It’s a heady, intense and robust play, and so are the set and costumes (by Jennifer Ham) – and I suppose it’s no coincidence that ‘Rooster’ is seen as a Robin Hood figure, the very stuff legends are made of, especially on a day like St George’s Day.
There’s an almost religious fervour, a zeal, to Butterworth’s writing, and I imagine the play as being what could’ve happened if Falstaff had walked out of the end of Henry IV with his entourage and ended up in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood during Thatcher’s Britain and stayed there for thirty-odd years. But as performed by Nicholas Eadie, ‘Rooster’ Byron felt flat, less a legend or a phenomenon, than a slightly exaggerated cardboard cut-out of a legend. Under his shuffling stumbling gait and mumbled voice, it was very hard to glimpse the enigmatic and chameleonic myth of a man, or even just the man called Johnny Byron. Butterworth’s ‘Rooster’, even on the page, has a magnetism to him, there is a sincere believability to him, even though you know some of his outlandish tales are surely little more than cock-and-bull; you believe him, despite his tendency towards hyperbole, and if anything, it is this unflagging devilish capriciousness that endears him to an audience. Sadly, Eadie had none of that. There was a moment, in the preview performance, when ‘Rooster’ hands Dawn a mobile phone; however, Eadie had misplaced the phone and totally in-character said, ‘You’ll have to mime the phone, I’ve left it in the dressing room.’ Only as the audience saw that they were indeed miming the phone, and the scene carried on barely without a glitch, did I get a glimpse of what Eadie’s ‘Rooster’ could have been. There might be a reason for this less than complete performance of his character, or it could simply be the fact it was a preview performance, but it felt that ‘Rooster’ was only an act at best, that he was just spouting lines, without any belief, anarchic delight, or real investment in the character.
The rest of the cast, comprised of mostly younger actors, were superb, and in many ways carried Eadie’s character, compensated for him, tried to bring him up. From Anna Chase’s opening a capella rendition of Sir Hubert Parry’s anthemic Jerusalem, to the various scenes of revelry outside ‘Rooster’ Byron’s hut, Peter McAllum’s whimsical stories as Professor, and the performance of the young actor playing his son, Marky, there was never really a dull moment between them, from any of them.
As the Kennet and Avon Council move to forcibly evict this squatter, this ‘Jack-in-the-green,’ they are literally moving to “[exorcise] its monsters… [preparing] to slay the dragon in his lair,” as Julia Boll notes in her essay, The Sacred Dragon in the Woods. It is a way for a society to purge itself of its scapegoat, the person who has ‘infected’ the community. In the same way that we, as humans, are drawn to myths and legends and stories as a source of courage, succour, shelter and refuge, so too are the youth of Wiltshire drawn to ‘Rooster’ Byron’s glade, “because he fuels their desires and allows them to feel at the same time recklessly wild and utterly safe in the woods.” Ultimately, this reckless abandon is at odds with the wider community’s opinion of the woods as a source of prime real estate; as William Blake’s words vividly condemn the effects of the industrialisation, and Parry’s tune echoes out through the forest, there is ‘Rooster,’ beating a drum, “beating the pulse of the ‘holy land’, [a beat which] turns out to be the beating heart of the community, about to be ripped out of the forest and leaving only scorched earth behind.” “How many houses are you building?” ‘Rooster’ asks the council’s liason officer, late in Act Three.
Who gets the contracts? Who gets the kickbacks? You’re right. Kids come here. Half of them are safer here than they are at home. You got nowhere else to go, come on over. The door’s open. You don’t like it, stay away. What the fuck do you think an English forest is for? [p98]
In a theatre, where communities gather to share stories, in much the same way that we go to churches to “evoke anxieties [and] deal with them together,” (to quote Jez Butterworth), to see a story about a local legend, much like a twenty-first century Robin Hood, performed before our eyes is a kind of religious experience, a great big riotous hymn to living, life, and the sacredness of the land, our stories, and our connection to it.
Like Australia’s own great suburban eviction film, The Castle, Jerusalem gives a whopping great salute to the powers at be and proves, once again, that a man’s home is his castle. Though I don’t know if Eadie’s ‘Rooster’ was its King.

Theatre playlist: 26. Jerusalem, Sir Hubert Parry

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