Jez Butterworth's ‘Jerusalem’ is the best British play ever – here's why
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 15 April 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
‘I doubt,’ wrote Kenneth Tynan in May 1956, ‘if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.’ I feel much the same about Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre and now returning for its third London run (at the Apollo Theatre from 16 April, for only 16 weeks), with Mark Rylance reprising his towering performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger Yates.
Jerusalem, which takes its title from William Blake’s poem is set on St George’s Day, as the Wiltshire village of Flintock celebrates its annual fair. All the action takes place in a forest clearing where Rooster lives in a ramshackle mobile home, playing irascible host to a steady stream of visitors, selling them drugs and presiding, like a woodland lord of misrule, over a rolling series of raves and revels.
Much of the magic of Jerusalem resides in its intermingling of day-to-day life – the floats at the fair, the question of who is barred from which pubs and why – with a deep sense of magic and myth.
The eccentric, bewildered Professor to whom Rooster is always hospitable expresses his creed best: ‘It is an Englishman’s duty at the first scent of May to make the turf his floor, his roof the arcing firmament. And his clothes the leaves and branches of the glade…This is a time for revelry…To be free from constraint. A time to commune with the flora and the fauna of this enchanted isle. To abandon oneself to the rhythms of the earth.’
Butterworth, for his part, has always insisted that Jerusalem is ‘a play, not an argument’, that he did not set out to write ‘a pamphlet’ or a ‘state of the nation’ polemic. All the same, from its opening in 2009, his creation struck a deep chord – or many chords – in audiences, addressing yearnings, anxieties and dreams of which they may not even have been previously conscious.
Thirteen years ago, it was natural to connect its themes of bereavement and dislocation to the seismic consequences of the financial crash, and the human wreckage it had left in its wake. The characters drawn to the clearing have low expectations and depleted hopes; you can see the beginnings of the gig economy in the work they mention.
By October 2011, when the play returned to the West End after its triumphant run on Broadway, there had been riots in cities across England; scenes of conflagration, violence and looting. The demons that would later animate Brexit were beginning to stir in this patchy, unfocused rebellion against authority in all its forms. This time, the words of the play – the furies it unleashed and the spirits it summoned – seemed even more contemporary than they had in 2009.
Ten years since its last London performance in January 2012, Jerusalem must be watched and assimilated afresh, in a transformed social and political context. Much of the language and many of the ideas that it made so vivid a decade ago – the importance of place, of home, of tradition, of control over one’s life – have since been tarnished by the bitter experience of Brexit, of tawdry nationalism and of populist nativism.
Yet that is precisely why the play’s revival is so welcome. Butterworth’s lyrical, ironic and folkloric language is just what is needed now to detoxify the Englishness that is the bedrock of the play and to remind us of its value.
Jerusalem in 2022 represents a reprieve for all that is best, most anarchic and most bawdily generous in the English soul. In fact, at a time when the nation is led by little, petty men, Rooster and his army of giants have never been needed more.
On Tuesday 19 April Jez Butterworth is joining us in the newsroom for a very special ThinkIn to discuss the story behind Jerusalem with James Harding. We’d love you to come along. Tickets are available – but don’t dither, they’re selling fast.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Operation Mincemeat (general release, 15 April)
It has taken 12 years for Ben Macintyre’s fine book to reach the big screen – but, as John Madden’s excellent movie demonstrates to gripping and entertaining effect, patience in film-making is often vindicated. Who on earth, in 1943, would have imagined that a floating corpse, packed with false documents claiming that the Allies intended to land in Greece rather than, as the Nazis assumed, in Sicily, would persuade Hitler to change his entire counter-strategy? A group of British intelligence officers on the so-called Twenty Committee, that’s who. An extraordinary rendering of history that should really be seen at the cinema – and one that, as conventional warfare rages once more in Europe, feels unexpectedly and eerily contemporary.
Last Thursday, 50 Tortoise members were lucky enough to have their own private preview screening of Operation Mincemeat, along with a Q&A with Ben Macintyre, the screenwriter Michelle Ashford, and director John Madden.
It was an exclusive Friends of Tortoise event – to book your place at the next one, sign up to become the ultimate supporter of Tortoise.
Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life by Delia Ephron
When Delia Ephron co-wrote You’ve Got Mail (1998) with her sister Nora, she can hardly have imagined that, years later, she would find herself re-enacting a version of the screenplay in real life. Capsized by the death of Nora and her husband Jerry (to whom she had been married for 33 years), she received an email from an old acquaintance, Peter, responding to a piece she had written for the New York Times. The two corresponded – and, both 72 and widowed, fell in love. Charming and extremely readable, it’s a memoir that is all the stronger for its recognition that the quest for happiness is rarely linear.
Familia by Camila Cabello
First of all, let us forgive Camila Cabello for her duet on this album with Ed Sheeran, ‘Bam Bam’: we all make mistakes. In every other respect, this is by some margin Cabello’s most impressive solo achievement to date, and blends infectious breakup pop – the lyrics draw heavily on her split with Shawn Mendes – with rich strains of salsa, mariachi and cumbia rooted in her Mexican-Cuban heritage. This sense of cultural identity at a time of personal upheaval gives the album its binding theme (and its title). An album which suggests that, aged 25, Cabello is just getting warmed up.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner