Is Jerusalem still the play of the century? Top playwrights give their verdicts | Theater

It was the play that had critics searching for superlatives and audiences queuing out of the door. When Jerusalem opened at London’s Royal Court in 2009, it developed a near-mythical reputation almost instantly. And when it was transferred to the West End and then on to Broadway, the legend was complete. Shaggy, rambunctiously comic and centered on Mark Rylance’s outsized performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a Falstaffian ruffian dispensing drugs and tall tales to teenagers in the West Country woods, Jerusalem was a state-of-the-nation play in the strangest sense. It sets up a contemporary England half-drunk on history, where even Rooster’s hangers-on expect giants to rise up near the A14 – and not just because they’ve popped too many pills. Could any of this be real? Some even declared it “the play of the century”. To mark its return to the West End, six playwrights consider its power and legacy – and ask whether its titanic reputation still stands.

Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

‘I’ve probably stolen its technique’ – james graham

I saw Jerusalem in previews, before the verdict came in that it was a historic piece of theater. But you could tell even then: the way the audience reacted was completely joyous. There are all these epic themes, but it was also a huge amount of fun: a full and proper night out. I’ve spent a long time trying to understand its DNA. I’ve often used it as a text when working with emerging writers. For all that it’s so wild and sprawling, it’s very tightly constructed. There’s a linearity of time, uniformity of place, a set group of characters – it’s not quite Greek, but nearly.

I love that Jez Butterworth, its writer, signs the storytelling right at the start: you’ve got this guy living in a caravan in the woods, the council wants to evict him, and he says: “I’m not going.” You get the dramatic proposition, the tension, the conflict – all in the first couple of minutes. I’ve probably stolen that technique a bit. Best of Enemies explicitly signposts the end at the very beginning.

A number of the scripts I’ve written have been about politics and the corridors of power. In Jerusalem, the politics are implicit not explicit, metaphorical not literal, and I really admire how bold Jez was with it: here’s this thing called “Jerusalem”, it’s a self-declared state-of-the-nation play, it’s about Englishness . It takes courage to do that.

Bea RobertsPlaywright

‘Reviving a play about Englishness seems ill-judged’ – bea roberts

I got a Megabus really early in the morning from Bristol to see Jerusalem in London’s West End. I queued for tickets as early as I could. The only seat I could get was up in the gods, but then I got chatting to a lady whose friend hadn’t turned up, and she offered me a seat in her box from her. It was an incredible, delirious, unexpected day.

The show made my body shake: the pounding noise of it, the energy of the performances. It was also thrilling to see on stage something from the West Country, which is still remarkably rare. As someone who grew up there, to me it felt really authentic: that self-deprecating sense of humour, the jokes about BBC Points West, a love for the countryside but also an acknowledgment of the smallness of that world.

Should the play be revived? I’m not sure. I read the script again recently and there’s a lot that feels dated: the laddish chat about “birds” and the racial references – will they change those or at least acknowledge them? I understand it’s a safe bet for producers, this big, much-loved hit – and I loved it too. But at a time when theater is grappling with questions of diversity and representation after Black Lives Matter, and when we’re seeing the rise of nationalism post-Brexit, doing a play about defending homeland and Englishness seems ill-judged. Maybe they’ll be able to question that, or give it context, but I’m not sure. So much has changed.

amy berryman

‘Rylance thanked his chiropractor. I understand why’ – amy berryman

I had just graduated from acting school and moved to New York. There was all this buzz about this British play that had landed on Broadway. Everyone seemed to be talking about it, in particular Mark Rylance’s performance of him as Rooster Byron. So we bought tickets.

I was determined to be an actor at the time, and was mainly looking at it through that sort of lens: “How’s he doing that, what’s he doing with his body?” It was otherworldly, the way Rylance transformed himself into this extraordinary muscular force. You see a lot of remarkable performances in New York, but this was something else. I remember listening to his acceptance speech from him after he won a Tony for best actor – and here was this lovely, rather sweet, small man, not this giant, epic thing I saw on stage. I have thanked his chiropractor for him. I think I understand why.

As someone who didn’t grow up in England, I’m sure some of the references went over my head. But what appealed to me was this sense of its world being so complete. And its characters felt universal. I remember being totally along for the ride.

Atiha Sen Gupta

‘Where is Rooster now? What happened to the women?’ – Atiha Sen Gupta

I never saw Jerusalem the first time around – I couldn’t get a ticket – so I bought the text and read it. What struck me was how lyrical and beautiful the writing was: poetic, dense, multilayered. Then there’s the fascinating question of Rooster and what kind of character he is: we see him as the ultimate outsider, existing on the margins, but we’re also deeply drawn to him. I wish I’d been able to see Rylance’s performance to figure out how – or if – I resolved that.

The play is packed with symbols of Englishness, from St George’s Day to maypoles to Spitfires. Some reviewers fondly alluded to Rooster as a metaphor for a lost England – a decaying man, a decaying empire. But, as someone who grew up in Britain in a leftwing Asian family, empire is not something I have any nostalgia for. The drama has also been hailed as the definitive English play in the modern canon. While it’s necessary to ask, “What or who is England?”, I don’t think there’s a single answer. There are many Englands.

Much as I’d like to finally see it, I wonder if, instead of just reviving Jerusalem with the same director and some of the same cast, a more interesting approach would be for someone to write a new play responding to it. Where is Rooster now? What happened to the female characters, who we don’t hear a lot from? How have they all navigated Brexit and Covid? That could be fascinating.

Polly Stenham
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

‘I went six times. It’s the holy grail’ – Polly Stenham

I was working on a project at the Royal Court when Jerusalem was in rehearsals, and there was something in the air – a sense that something really exciting was being created. One day I was having a cigarette with one of the crew, a guy called Stick who’d been building the set, and he said: “You absolutely have to see this.” I ended up going six times. I made everyone I knew go, even people who never went to the theater.

I was a fairly inexperienced writer at the time – my second play, Tusk Tusk, had just been staged – and I learned so much from the script. I didn’t realize that you could be epic and grand, but also funny and up-to-date. There’s all that stuff about myths and Englishness, but there’s banter, and gags about Girls Aloud. Jez is such a generous writer: even minor characters get their riffs and arias.

And then the climax, the scene where Rooster is drumming, incanting the names of spirits and ghosts! As a writer, if you can create that kind of energy, it’s the holy grail. I think it’s also worth saying that the director Ian Rickson, who I’ve worked with subsequently, is so important, both in the way he worked with Jez to help bring it into existence and the way it appeared on stage. He’s a proper writers’ director.

Jerusalem wasn’t tidy, it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t commercial. It was sprawling and wild and dangerous – and I felt completely lit up by it. If you see a handful of plays like that in your lifetime, you’re doing well.

Mark Ravenhill
Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

‘I felt like I was at a Countryside Alliance rally’ – Mark Ravenhill

Jerusalem is old-fashioned in the best ways: it’s got this big three-act structure, two intervals, three hours-plus. Hardly anyone does that any more. At first you think: “Oh, this is a sort of pastoral comedy.” But then the momentum builds and it turns into this epic state-of-the-nation play. The confidence and craft of that is so impressive. Jez – whom I’ve never met – is a hugely talented writer, absolutely no question.

And Rylance was definitive. It’s immensely rare for one of the greatest actors of their generation to connect with a piece of new writing: it felt like you were watching Laurence Olivier play The Entertainer [by John Osborne] or Anthony Hopkins of Pravda [by David Hare and Howard Brenton].

However, I did sense odd things, too, as much in the audience reaction as anything else. When I saw it at the Royal Court during that initial run, it was summer 2009. Gordon Brown was in power and you could sense that it was the end of the New Labor era. Something was changing. That image in Jerusalem of the spirit of England being under threat from busybodies and petty bureaucrats – that England has got befuddled and stoned, is living in its caravan in the woods, but will rise to its feet and conquer once more – that seemed to do something to the audience.

We were in central London, but it was like being in the middle of a Countryside Alliance rally. As I left, I thought: “The Tories are going to win the next election.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.