Jerusalem – Revisiting ‘the greatest play of the 21st Century’

I have seen Jerusalem twice in my life. The first time as a lower sixth A Level English student resentful of being dragged away from my mates to spend an evening at the theatre. The second time two years later, this time dragging my mate to the Victoria and Albert Museum to watch it huddled around a tiny computer screen, desperate to reimagine the magic I had witnessed the first time around. Never has a work of art be it film, novel, painting or anything else captured my imagination in quite the same way. Sitting there as a 17-year-old, watching three hours dissolve into nothing, I was gripped by a feeling which I had never encountered before; an extreme fascination if not pride for ‘England’s pleasant pastures’, with its mythicism, anti-establishment sentiment and unique sense of humour. This nationalistic pride that I felt had nothing to do with the red-faced, xenophobia that is today synonymous with nationalism but rather, was stirred in me by scenes of woodland raves to romping dance music, self-deprecating humour and a such a love for the place that we call home that if we leave our ears might go “pop”. Will that magic shine through again when Jerusalem is re-staged this year or has the bitterness caused by Brexit left it hard to feel so glowingly towards a portrait of flag waving, Englishness?

When Jerusalem was first released in 2009, the deadbeat characters huddled by a caravan in the woods could be seen as the victims of the ongoing financial crisis, stuck in rural Britain with no way out. Back then, their love of the St George’s flag, village rituals and ‘un-PC vernacular’ were little more than a sad case of rural Britain being left behind, perhaps viewed with the kind of affection we have for Kerry and Kurtan in ‘This Country’. As Jerusalem was re-launched this year, it is hard to see the characters in exactly the same way. These misfits, hilarious and entertaining as they are, today only bring connotations of the type of person, I as a Brexit sceptic liberal have come to resent. What a shame then life has become so politicised that to me things which seemed so admirable the first time around can no longer be prised apart from ideas of prejudice, intolerance and xenophobia. Or was I naïve to have believed if only for 3 hours, that Englishness was ever something more noble than what I had believed it to be all my life and have once again come to believe now?

The answer is of course nuanced, just as the play itself is a dichotomy in almost all senses. For one, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron the centrepiece of the play’s mythic appeal is a character who straddles the liminal space between hero and drunken deadbeat loser. His emphatic prose, stories of meeting giants, jumping double-deckers and his imposing physical stature give him an air of ancient legend, the way he has his gang of revellers and audience hooked on every word makes it hard not to get behind the fantasy. Nevertheless, Butterworth frequently reminds the audience that this man is capable too of the lowest of lows; perhaps illustrated best by Troy’s description of how two of Rooster’s gang had pissed all over him and sent it around the village on their phones. Likewise, British culture is both celebrated and damned, Rooster unapologetically sells drugs to minors while Ginger’s mundane existence can be summed up by his evening “sat at home in my Y-fronts watching telly. Pot Noodle. Unsuccessful wank. Bed.” Yet at the same time, there is much to be admired in the community’s collective excitement about the ‘Flintock Fair’ (“It’s the fair, it’s the Flintock Fair. It’s the motherfucking Flintock Fair. It’s the fair, it’s the Flintock Fair. It’s shit. But you love it.”) There is a celebration of England with its Morris dancing professors and the crowning of the May Queen. Whatsmore, the audience struggles not to support Byron’s protest against the homogenisation set to be brought about by ‘the new estate’ with its cookie-cutter houses and polished SUVs. So to an extent, this play is a celebration of Englishness, or rather, a more timeless, placeless celebration of cultural pride and the resistance to change. I see no reason why, ten years later, I should not feel the same admiration for Rooster and his fight back against those who wish to replace history and culture with shiny modernity. After all, why should we impose our own political assumptions on a play which never chooses to be political? In fact, to me, more than ever, this piece of work is important in a post-Brexit landscape, it shows that a pride in preserving culture, customs and ways of living do not belong solely to those who voted Brexit and would see immigration stripped back and borders slammed shut nor to those who account for the 25% rise in hate crimes in the last 5 years. It can also belong to communities who need drawing together, who simply relish in their sense of place. 

All this said, and bearing in mind what I previously wrote about this whole play being a series of dichotomies, there are lines in the play about Nigerian traffic wardens and women in burqas that make it very hard to believe that this community would be separate from the kind of xenophobic nationalism that contributed towards Brexit. However, I do not think this detracts from the piece of art, nor do I think the script should have been changed to accommodate more ‘acceptable’ language as one reviewer in The Guardian argues. This is a portrait of rural England and to deny that such things are said in many parts of the country is pure fantasy, not least when our very own Prime Minister describes women in burqas as ‘letterboxes’’. Was it not the denial that such points of view existed that led to the disenfranchisement that caused the Brexit result in the first place? This is not of course me justifying those words, opinions or sentiments, but ignoring what millions of people sadly think, will only prevent us from learning how to remedy these issues. The answer is not to simply pretend these people don’t exist. Rooster Byron’s unbridling of anger aimed toward the ‘sorry cunts on the New Estate’ could easily be replaced by another scapegoat: immigrants, the EU, career politicians or any of the other flimsy causes cited by many Brexit voters. Perhaps then, while in 2022 the play might not seem an innocent evocation of protecting a dying culture, it could be seen as a prophetic vision of how marginalised working-class communities would erupt with frustration 7 years later, not, like Rooster at the beating of a giant’s drum, but at the ballot box.

Jerusalem was hailed when first released as ‘the greatest play of the 21st Century’, ‘an instant classic’ and ‘a masterpiece’ and I believe that time will never change that. What has always been a play that makes you question whether Rooster Byron was really a creature of mythic stature or one of pathetic delusion now has a new question that needs answering. Reflecting back in the context of a post-Brexit Britain, is this play a reminder that culture and community can and was cherished detached from politics or a warning shot of how explosive the reaction would come to be of those left behind by society? 

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