Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pleasant pastures scene

Jerusalem, directed by Jez Butterworth and recently transferred from the Royal Court, stars Mark Rylance as the free-living, drug-dealing Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron who lives in a caravan, willingly outside of mainstream south Wiltshire society (apart from its pubs). After an inspired treatment of Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame, Rylance plays Byron with ferocious whimsy, a dedicated commitment to the kind of freedom that only permanent intoxication can bring. It is an exercise in seeing how far notions of an individual’s connection to freedom, to the land and belief in the west country’s spiritual side can go. Are these all romantic but ultimately convenient excuses for opting out and getting high?


Most of the action takes place in the build-up to the annual St George’s Day fair in the (fictional) Flintock but under the shadow of Byron’s looming eviction, ostensibly for tax evasion and other infringements but clearance for the homogenising threat of another development next to the already hated ‘new estate’ is probably the real motive. Over three hours including two breaks, the first section opens riotously with another party back at ‘the Rooster’s’, the metallic funk of Prodge’s Omen blasting out. Cut to beatific spring morning silence, and council workers serve notice of eviction being in a matter of hours, then Mackenzie Crook as Ginger introduces a West Country role far different to his servile Gareth in the Office although cheeky lines suggest there is a bit of fondness for the military life. As the others turn back up and tell Ginger how good the party he missed was (‘Davey’ had been ‘over there dancing with some wicked trees’), the first section paints a benevolent picture of the near-hippy life of all day spliffing and boozing in anticipation of the fair.

All the signifiers of mythical England (not Britain) are here – leylines running under the caravan apparently, talk of a golden stag and, according to Byron, a troupe of giants who told him they built Stonehenge. Byron tests the resolve of the hangers-on by beseeching Ginger to bang the drum that would bring forth the giants, but he is too scared. There is also a moment where Byron asks another to look into his eye as if to do so would summon up some dark spirits. The transfigurative moment is left hanging (the budget didn’t include for giants or disembodied spirits). But just as often there is mundane talk of getting pissed, getting by, doing what the normals do and it is this tension in the ensemble between how far they want to go (Byron is already out there) that is a key driver of the play. Even the pub landlord, doing a turn as a Morris dancer at the fayre, taps up Byron for a narcotic pep-up. But an emblem of real-life responsibility hits Byron when a child (his) turns up with his estranged partner (also keen for a few lines) and naturally he had forgotten all about looking after him.

As prejudice increasingly reveals itself, the perception crucially shifts that Byron is no hippy, but a gypo (a standard term of abuse from people only just removed from that lifestyle themselves) who can’t get away with it no more, and one by one his crew fade away with barely any assistance (the boys were all tripping anyway). His nemesis turns out not to be the council but Troy, an estate mush, intent on revenge as Byron with his ‘Romany blood’ had been harbouring his daughter (this is last year’s May Queen of the Fayre who had started each scene with renditions of Jerusalem and who crawled out a crevice of the caravan late on). Butterworth is careful to indicate that if anyone it’s the father not Byron that is her inevitable abuser, but nevertheless Troy and his droogs take a blowtorch to Jerusalem’s sole dweller. His Forest of Arden is collapsing around him.

Living the truly free life as portrayed here comes with too many strings attached, it seems, so best to whimsically act it out (like the alky ex-professor here), to never make good on your own fantasy. All idylls are temporary and to abuse too much the ethics of the host society is to run into trouble. Having fun while it laughs is no design for life.
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