Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is back, 13 years old and, as another theatergoer said on Wednesday, several culture wars since its premiere. Set on the tumultuous St. George’s Day in a Wiltshire village, the day Kennet and Avon council officials chose to evict the defiant ‘Rooster’ Byron from his illegal encampment, the play still vibrates with a punk energy and Puck. The company, less white as a group than in 2009, is still homogeneous; Mark Rylance always bewitching. It’s still one of the brightest things I’ve seen in theatre.
Butterworth has recently disavowed the idea of having created a “state of the nation” piece – which would be a remarkably pompous thing to do anyway. That doesn’t mean he didn’t write one. What good are artists if not to feel vibrations undetectable by others? The great artists are the soothsayers and soothsayers of the nation. Currents rise through them, poetically, obliquely, as they tell themselves they are dealing with the practical craft of making a workable script. Butterworth reduced Jerusalem to a play “about wanting to stay but having to leave” – and no, that’s not a veiled reference to Brexit. It is, in its most basic form, characters moving onstage or offstage, the most basic driving force of drama ever since Clytemnestra persuaded Agamemnon to step on the purple tapestries at the premiere of The Oresteia. in 458 BCE.
I remember the shock of seeing Jerusalem in 2010: the absolute shock of a new play about rural England – and you didn’t hear much about ‘England’ as a cultural or political unit in era. It was not a pleasant pastoral; it was a rough and messy campaign, though steeped in beauty and myth. Ultz, the designer, had conjured up trees, thickets, grass; a jumble of old drink cans and trash. Nothing about it was ‘cool’ or ‘experimental’: it was a one-day three-act play, as a Greek might have done, full of Falstaffian energies – which are themselves the energies of the counterculture. , punk, anarchic anarchism, both seductive and off-putting. My mind couldn’t help but fly to other dark, enchanted forests: Arden, of course, and the “wood near Athens” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The man was riffing with Shakespeare, with Blake. The confidence was breathtaking.
What’s hard to remember is that for the previous decade, as Butterworth was cooped up at his home in Pewsey, Wiltshire, trying to make the play work, the prevailing cultural tides seemed so different. The focus had been on London and its resurgent city centre, fueled by a booming economy. The capital – and it really does sound like something from another life – was full of cheap abandoned warehouses where the still-young YBAs set up studios.
I was 24 years old and working at Condé Nast when the March 1997 edition of vanity lounge was thrown across my desk – the infamous “London swings” number, with Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher lying on Union Jack pillows. Inside, Tony Blair, two months away from becoming prime minister, was pictured as a smiling young saint. Even back then, however, there was a sense of “it can’t last”: the cover story echoed a lot between its own moment and “Swinging London 1.0”, the dead and buried 1960s. I was working at The World of Interiors magazine at the time. In this venerable house of French tic-tac and canvas of jouy, our January issue was – shockingly in its own way – devoted to concrete. That’s where the buzz was: concrete and steel, Hoxton and Shoreditch. It was Damien Hirst, Alexander McQueen, Sarah Kane, the River Café. The buzz was not in Wootton Bassett, Devizes, Wilcot or Potterne, the English place names Butterworth would conjure up like charms. (All Britain has heard of Wootton Bassett, remember, this is where the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan were airlifted.)
When did things start to change? It’s tempting to claim that Jerusalem marked the end of the New Labor aesthetic, but that’s far too pompous. Anyway, things had gone wrong long before: Iraq, the financial crisis. Lucy Prebble’s play Enron also premiered in 2009, although Jerusalem also contains a hilarious exegesis of What Went Wrong With the Economy, via a failed attempt to buy a gram of whizz. Other artists worked against the current: Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane collected their Folk Archives, including images of Cumberland wrestlers and Devonian tar barrel rolls – exactly the kind of people who might have made a turn at the Flintock Fair, Jerusalem’s village festival. “The New Writing of Nature” began with people like Kathleen Jamie and Robert Macfarlane. Foundations were laid that would later, indirectly, give rise to works of art ranging from Max Porter’s novel Lanny to Charlotte Prodger’s film BRIDGIT and PJ Harvey’s collection of Dorset dialect poetry, Orlam.
It would be easy to declare Jerusalem the prophet of Brexit. That would reduce the game. Jerusalem emerges from something more fundamental: a vein of rough, sometimes nasty English magic that runs beneath the surface. It’s to Geoffrey of Monmouth. It’s in Shakespeare and Blake. It’s in A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes. It’s in Alan Garner and Susan Cooper; it’s in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes; Deller would say it was there in the rave culture of the 90s. But perhaps Jerusalem goes deeper than that, to a place far beyond ‘nation’ or ‘myth’, to the secret places of the imagination – where even the most rational lift spirits and commune with ghosts. “Come, you battalions… Come, you giants!”