Article 19’s adaptation, directed by Elisha Owen and Nicole Rixon, was my first taste of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and it was a distinctly bittersweet one.
Set on St George’s Day in a fictional country village in Wiltshire, the play tells the tale of old, local waster Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and his motley crew of mates. Away from the country fair celebrations, Rooster has twenty-four hours until he is evicted from his mobile home. Thus the three-hour play, dense with dialogue, passes with the tension of a ticking time bomb.
The short time span and single set made for an absorbing portrait into Rooster’s world. The set’s attention to detail was outstanding and the old caravan, stained sofa and empty beer bottles that greeted the audience gave a taste of what was to come. Staged on the same level as the audience’s seating, the play also created the impression that this was not a performance we were seeing but a slice of real life.
The play boasts an eclectic mix of characters, brilliantly played by an excellent cast. Sam Forbes was especially comical as the whimsical professor who has lost his dog, whilst Ciaran Creswell gave a great performance as Wesley, the straight-laced landlord turned stoned Morris dancer.
However the lead character, in an absorbing performance given by Jack J Fairley, is the hardest character to pin down. Essentially a low-life, surviving on drink and drugs in his squalid caravan, he is certainly not a hero- not even likable. Yet, in comparison to local thug Troy, he is not a villain. Something of an anti-hero, he simultaneously sickens and seduces the audience- just as his eloquent words and magnetism wins a kiss from his ex-wife, Dawn. In his battle against the district council to evict him, we instinctively fall on his side- but uneasily so.
Most mesmerising of all, for me, was Rooster’s seeming inability to grow up and his refusal to take responsibility for his actions, from his six-year old son to his smashed up TV. When his friends tell him he smashed it up himself the night before he replies, as he does to anything they accuse him of, ‘Bollocks!’ His crew of teenage companions further reflects this character trait and it is ambiguous whether he corrupts or protects them- plying them with drink and drugs, but providing them with a space where they feel safe. The audience begins to lean towards the latter as the play unfolds, especially as it begins to appear that Rooster is being used. For me, the play’s most painfully sad moment was when local thug Troy laughed as he told Rooster how his so called friends pissed on him whilst he was passed out. And whilst he is certainly not fit to be a parent, the tender moments with his son persuade us that he is essentially a good man and that society is the monster.
Whilst Jerusalem is ultimately a play that explores ‘Englishness’, for me it was more about the dullness and disillusionment that accompanies growing old. The character of Lee, who is set to leave for Australia the next day, highlights the stagnant nature of the other character’s lives- particularly Rooster’s.
The play ends ambiguously, with the constant overbearing pressure of the eviction never fully resolved. I left after three hours feeling absolutely overwhelmed and utterly confused. As such, my first experience of Jez Butterworth’s work is one I’m still trying to make sense of.
By Ellicia Pendle