Jerusalem – Drugs and Booze in our Green and Pleasant Land

Posted: April 27, 2010 in Living, Theatre

Originally in my Wiltshire Magazine Blog

Today I will talk about a play which has been called “one of the best dramas of the 21st century”, and which is set in our very own Wiltshire.

You don’t often see a whole theatre rise to give a standing ovation, yet this is exactly what happened in London last week.

I’m not exaggerating. Literally every person in the theatre stood up. You can imagine it happening at the Potterne Village Pantomime – where the villagers not only stand up to applaud but also throw their spare coins at the cast – but in London!

The play I saw is Jerusalem, and is set in our very own Wiltshire. It is about a modern-day Pied Piper, an anarchistic outcast who personifies every rebellion in English history, from peasants’ revolt of 1381 to the Diggers.

This larger-than-life anti-hero is called Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, and he supplies the village with generous amounts of drugs, booze and mayhem. Byron was brilliantly portrayed by Mark Rylance, while the play also featured Mackenzie Crook.

The play is set on St. George’s Day, the morning of the local fair – based on the Pewsey Carnival – and the day before Byron is to be evicted by the county council from his spot in the woods.

I won’t give out too much information on the plot, but rather talk about some of the themes of the play.

Jez Butterworth’s script tackles some of the most pressing issues in rural England, and all through a group of characters who wouldn’t look out of place on Channel Four’s Shameless.

Through the characters’ carefree drug taking, underage drinking, and tales of all-night raves in the woods, Butterworth presents a group of reprobates who stand defiant in the face of our sanitised modern life.

They are not lowlifes however, nor are they stupid. They see through the “fun” prescribed by the local bureaucracy, and remember fondly the days when the village festival was enjoyable – when paying a pound to kick a burly farmer between the legs was the main entertainment.

The play laments the health & safety legislation which has come to dominate almost everything a community does. The cancelling of the annual cheese-rolling race in Gloucestershire this year is a recent indication of this trend.

At the same time it satirises the takeover of traditional customs by clever marketing folk. It mocks the brewery for forcing a local pub landlord to dress up as a Morris dancer and dance through the streets – something he can only do sanely under the influence of Byron’s cocaine.

Within the scenes of revelry there is a subtle reflection of what is under threat in rural England; not just fun and spontaneity, but also nature itself.

The destruction of countryside – through “development” – and the growing authority of the government which allows this destruction to take place are both subtly criticised.

Like the characters in the play, the woods in which Byron lives are literally on the fringe. Like many of England’s woods they are in danger of being lost, and with them any sense of the ancient and mystical in our rural landscape.


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