The safety curtain’s cross of St George was at first alarming. The “infamous” (the programme) failure of the English to appropriate their own historical and mythical past has meant England’s national flag has become the de facto intellectual property of the racist Far Right, and combine this association with the play’s reputation – a subversion of the English pastoral, a comment on modern day life in provincial England – and one could be forgiven for anticipating with dread a BNP-styled evening. But what we saw was something quite the opposite. In fact, as something of an English refraction of the American ‘state of the nation’ genre, the total absence of any acknowledgement of the changing face of English society, of immigration and multiculturalism, stands as an obvious point of criticism.
The play’s opening enacts a paradox of England: the irreconcilability of myth and modernity. A fairy-winged young girl sings William Blake’s Jerusalem (the anthem of the patriotic, who conveniently overlook Blake’s questioning grammar – “and did the holy lamb of God” – and ambivalence – “satanic mills”) conjuring an English pastoral idyll, an idyll which never really existed. This fictitious idealism is thrown into farcical relief by the violent intrusion onto the girl’s sweet singing of a cocaine- and alchohol-fuelled rave at Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron’s caravan (called “Waterloo”) accompanied with thumping dance music and set in a burlesque of the enchanted faery-land forest. Sounds like fun, one might think, and if one does, then one would be like any of the countless teenagers who have over the years seized their dwindling liberty to the full and joined Byron, mercenarily, for the ride. No-one is that nice, except of course for the brilliantly donnish and classically affable Professor, played so charmingly by Alan David, who only becomes all the more endearing after he is slipped two tabs of acid before the local St George’s Day fete.
Another whom we sympathise with is morris dancer Wesley, played by Max Baker, one of Byron’s original fellow-partiers who has become trapped into a monotonous and unsatisfying middle-aged life. Then there is Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), who seems to be the most caring of Byron’s train, but even he scarpers to save his own skin in the end. We are reminded that most of Byron’s relationships revolve around raving or selling drugs (hilarious though this is, as when, asked how he’s coping with his trip, Ginger replies that he’s feeling “very visual”) and when it comes to it, most don’t really care about Byron’s exigent eviction.
Byron’s very name enacts his pariah-poetic status. Mark Rylance strikes ludicrous poses, puffing out his sweat- and vodka- stained chest and staring maniacally out of wide eyes, and he is undoubtedly the star and the main propulsion of the (very long) evening, utterly convincing and hilarious throughout. It is almost a shame that the extremely moving final sequence does not end with his broken, blood-stained body prostrate on the stage, but becomes deformed, in what seems a trangression of the play’s decorum, into a tenuous soliloquy on English mythology accompanied by the tapping of a giant’s drum.
Operating within one day, St George’s Day, Jerusalem doesn’t make a comment on contemporary England quite as unified as its Aristotelean dramatics. More of a condensed snapshot of different scenes observed around the English countryside, as Butterworth concedes in the programme, the play offers a hilariously well-written evening, carried along by an unforgettable performance by Rylance. Highly recommendable.