In April 2022, Jez Butterworth’s terrific, William Blake-inspired drama Jerusalem returns to London for a special, limited 16-week run. I was lucky enough to see it last night at the press review – red carpet, flashing cameras, which was also kind of fun to see, and a sign of the eagerness with which the revival of this play – often said to be the “greatest British play of the 21st century” – has been greeted.
Blake is very much in the background of the play – ie not in the foreground. But he informs it – it is remarkable how much of our idea, or image (vision?) of ‘England’ is informed solely by him – who else now evokes a strong sense of ‘Englishness’? Or conveys and transmits the links with our past, our mythologies, and histories? Perhaps only Shakespeare and his summoning of ‘this sceptered isle’.
I think the play is basically about Albion, and the state of Albion – what it means to be English – that’s why it’s set on St George’s day, and hence the Blake references, and allusions to lay lines, forests, Druids, Stonehenge, poetry etc. Not that it’s a ‘state of the nation’ play, or about a single moment or period – it’s a much deeper exploration and meditation about belonging – about wanting to stay but having to go, as Butterworth has elsewhere described it. And how the bureaucratic machine is increasingly enabling this disembodiment, dissociation, and devitalisation.
Butterworth interestingly aligns this spirit with the marginalised and seemingly chaotic (i.e. unregulated) world of caravans, travellers, revellers and gypsies — as well as the local young people desperately looking for some transcendent initiation experience or ritual before entering the world of suits — the wild (i.e. free), chthonic scenes of parties, booze, and drugs – that seem to dominate and define ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance)’s world. That connection was the fascinating thing – with all its contradictions and difficulties (interesting to see such a world so warmly cheered so much on stage, in a West End theatre presumably few travellers would have any access to or be able to afford to sit in, and whose on-stage activities would be immediately criminalised if they were actually taken outside).
Butterworth in many ways celebrates that life (while not really glamorising it or making it unproblematic – at times for instance suggesting that the rural world of Morris dancers, maypoles, and motorcycle jumps over Stonehenge might also be a bit ludicrous). But it is largely presented as an authentic – or at least more authentic – evocation or expression of the spirit of England – than, say, the jobsworths from the local country council who come to Byron’s caravan with their pieces of paper and regulations, evicting him from his own forest. In what sense does Kennet and Avon Council actually “own” this land?
The contrast between that world – bureaucratic, dead, regulatory, unfeeling, unempathic, hypocritical, glib, driven by abstractions, codes, and profiteering – and the unconfined world of dance, revelry, spontaneous gatherings, sex, nature, music, soul – the contrast perhaps between the left and the right brain, between Logos and Mythos, between Urizen and Urthona – is the most galvanising and thought-provoking (and Blakean of course) aspect to the drama. The implication is that we now live in a world completely dominated by Urizen – by control, bureaucracy, and corporate interests – and have suffocated the life of the true breath of Albion.
The play starts with the curious and touching figure of a sort of winged, green fairy – evocative perhaps of Titania – singing alone on stage and a cappella, Blake’s famous words about Jerusalem – she later turns out to be a young ‘May Queen’ in the village, shortly about to lose her crown (ie time is running out for this world, for the secret commonwealth as Pullman describes it).
There were a couple of intriguing – semi-mystical – moments when Rooster Byron asks another character to look in his eyes (his back turned towards the audience as he does this) and they start sort of shaking – as if they See something there, which he holds or is the preserve of – and which vindicates him – and the suggestion is that we don’t want to see that, to look into those eyes – to look into our past and see who we really are. Because then we’d realise what we’ve lost.
The final scene is in some way the bit that stays with you the most, and redeems the play – and the play is good throughout – but this sort of leads you to suspect the deeper, more disturbing and relevant forms, currents, and potencies at work or alluded to – in which, severely beaten up and bloodied, the isolated Johnny Byron sees the final dawn in, pounding on his drum to summon the vast, giants of Albion to take back their land. Take back their land from the soulless gods of modernity – bureaucracy technology efficiency – before there is no land to take back.
“What God did we used to worship, before Apple, and wifi, and fast bucks and Starbucks hacked into and raided our deep collective identity in an exchange for profit and trinkets – before something transcendent, implicit, collective, shared, and poetic was plundered and rebranded by multinational leviathans, transnational behemoths – dark Satanic Shards reaching across the globe, and served by a political class more focused on representing their ideologies and interests than those of their own people? Power has lost its connection with us, the people. The desiccation of the land is also this: the alienation, devitalisation, and dissociation that we feel in our hearts. It’s time to take back the kingdom” – William Blake, Brexit and the Re-Awakening of Albion.
The current run of Jerusalem is technically sold out I think, but you can still get tickets if you’re lucky – check the website the day before for returns, you can sign-up for tickets, or turn up to the theatre at 10am on the day I think for possible releases. Most tickets are £125, but some were £10 or £15 – incredible really (I got these, as last-minute returns, and they were technically ‘restricted view’ but absolutely fine). I’ve never heard an audience so entranced and silent, leaning over to catch over word – a testament to the quality of the cast, including Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook. The play doesn’t provide any answers – you have to read Blake for that – but it sets out the faultlines (and laylines!) in a remarkably memorable and compelling way.
Rod Tweedy, PhD, is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021). He is also an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.
See also William Blake, Brexit and the Re-Awakening of Albion, by Rod Tweedy
“As Butterworth and Rylance say towards the end of this interview, the play is an anguished cry for the importance of mythos in our logos-driven world. Logos is about rationalism, calculation, straight-lines and ticked-boxes. It’s about career-ladders and life lived according to a plan. It’s the housing estate that engulfs the woods. Mythos is, well … even to try and define it is to reduce it to logos, to make it something that it isn’t. We can only look at mythos askance, from the corner of our eyes. But we know it when we see it. We feel its effects viscerally. So here’s to the outlaws, the outsiders, the madmen and the magicians, the Roosters of this world, who give their lives to mythos and make the world shake” (Andy Letcher)